JACKSON — Members of Mississippi’s College Board met Monday and said they aren’t backing down from a decision to seek a new chancellor for the University of Mississippi, despite rising criticism of the move.
Board members, commenting publicly after an executive session lasting more than an hour, said Dan Jones never resolved problems with contract and financial management at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. The members said the board had pushed repeatedly for a resolution of those problems without success over the years.
“This led to our conclusion that the only practical way to deal with this … was to make a change in the institutional head,” said Alan Perry, the board’s incoming president.
But supporters of the chancellor said he has been a strong leader and are resisting moves to force him out.
UMMC has a budget of $1.6 billion this year, about 38 percent of the entire budget of $4.2 billion for all eight universities, and Perry said trustees wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t “exercise our appropriate control over their financial transactions.”
A review completed in September by the Ridgeland-based accounting firm of Matthews, Cutrer and Lindsay found numerous violations of College Board policy. All contracts over $100,000 are to be voted on by the board, as well as most leases. In at least six cases, UMMC sought retroactive approval for contracts and leases. But in more than 60 other cases, no approval was ever sought, the firm said. In other cases, contracts had no spending limits or completion dates, or showed that UMMC spent more than the amount negotiated by itself or the state’s Department of Information Technology Services.
In at least 29 cases, contracts expired and UMMC continued paying vendors on a month-to-month basis without board approval.
Board members told Jones in an executive session last Thursday that they didn’t intend to renew his contract, which expires in September. On Friday, they voted 9-2 to begin a search for a new chancellor. The move took many Ole Miss supporters by surprise. Jones had been chancellor since 2009, and led UMMC before then.
Jones and his supporters reject the idea that the problems are serious enough to deny him a new contract. Jones said in a phone interview that he should be judged on his larger successes.
“I kept asking the board to look at the macro markers, the macro indicators,” he said.
Venture capitalist and major donor Jim Barksdale, who attended Monday’s meeting, said he serves on a financial advisory committee at UMMC and agreed with Jones’ assessment.
“The things he listed are, in my opinion, things you just take care of,” Barksdale said. “You don’t fire someone.”
Faculty and students vow continued protests. It’s unclear if they can create enough pressure to lead the board to reconsider, but they’re hauling in big names including former star quarterback Archie Manning, whose family recently agreed to help solicit donations for UMMC.
“It is my hope that somehow the decision not to renew Dr. Jones’ contract can be reconsidered if possible,” Manning said in a statement. “I know full well how rare it is to find a talented, caring, and dedicated leader.”
The alumni association and former chancellor Robert Khayat are also calling for Jones’ reinstatement.
“I think their decision was egregious and without foundation,” Khayat said.
Anthony Papa, president of the Gertrude C. Ford Foundation, said Monday that the foundation will retract the $20 million it’s promised for a new science building at Ole Miss unless the College Board retains Jones.
“For them to treat him this way, I just think it’s a dirty trick,” Papa said.
Papa said he wasn’t coordinating his opposition with other donors, but wants to. “The large donors need to get together and discuss this and see what we can do about it,” he said.
Barksdale said he wasn’t sure if he would withhold his money, because it could hurt students who benefit from scholarships.
As such donors mull their options, Perry is appealing for people to take a step back.
“We were trying to do our best to make the best decisions we can for the University of Mississippi and its staff,” he said. “It will do no good to anyone, least of all Ole Miss, to continue in a prolonged and rancorous public dispute. More injury can be done than I expect any of us can imagine.”