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Bryant accused of improper role in community college search

JACKSON

Gov. Phil Bryant

Gov. Phil Bryant

— The Mississippi Community College Board remained at an impasse in its search for a new executive director Friday, amid growing accusations that Gov. Phil Bryant has improperly intervened. Bryant denies any improper action.

After failing to choose a candidate following interviews in December, Board Chairman Bruce Martin of Meridian said the board took no action in closed session Friday after again discussing a replacement for current Executive Director Eric Clark, who is retiring.

The board coordinates the functions of the 15 independent community colleges. On Dec. 18, the board interviewed two candidates: Debra West, the board’s deputy director of programs and accountability, and Michael Heindl, vice president of administration and finance at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

Minutes show board member Bubba Hudspeth of Louisville moved to hire West as the new executive director after interviews. That motion failed on a 5-5 vote. Then board member Tom Gresham of Indianola voted to review the criteria and seek more candidates, a position favored by Bryant. That motion also failed 5-5, opposed by those who voted for West.

Martin, who voted against West and for changing requirements, said board members would likely discuss the situation again in February.

The president of a regional accrediting group sent a Jan. 9 letter saying Bryant’s attempts to change requirements for the director were undue political influence.

“I have been told that the governor is pressuring members of the state board to change the requirements for the leader of the system by not requiring that person to have a doctoral degree or any postsecondary educational experience, but to make an appointment based on politics and not on qualifications,” Belle Wheelan, president of the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, wrote to Clark.

Wheelan wrote that she had been contacted by some community college presidents and others.

“I believe it would be a serious mistake for Mississippi to allow political interference to impact the selection of the new CEO and to give the impression that the board is willing to bend to political pressure,” Whelan wrote, saying the state could also suffer bad publicity.

SACS accredits individual colleges, but not the statewide board.

Bryant spokesman Knox Graham described Wheelan’s letter as “baseless and condescending.”

The governor asked the board to drop requirements for an academic doctorate or experience in educational administration.

“I would hope you would reassess the existing job description and broaden the focus to include experience related to workforce training and development,” Bryant wrote in a Nov. 14 letter.

When asked if Bryant asked the board to consider specific candidates, Graham wrote in an email that, “The governor receives any number of inquiries for open positions regularly and passes along names to appropriate board members or individuals while having no specific candidate.”

Johnny Allen, president of Northeast Mississippi Community College and chairman of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges, said he and Hinds Community College President Clyde Muse asked Bryant in November to let the board work without interference.

Allen said the presidents believe higher education experience is crucial.

“We felt like it was important for the executive director to understand the decision-making that goes on at the colleges,” he said.

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