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Mississippi names first black higher education commissioner

The first-ever African American has been named to oversee Mississippi’s eight public universities.

The state College Board announced Friday that Alfred Rankins Jr. will become higher education commissioner July 1 when Glenn Boyce retires. Rankins is the current president of Alcorn State University.

It’s a return to the central office for Rankins, who previously served as deputy commissioner. After temporarily leading Mississippi Valley State University, Rankins was named in 2014 as permanent president of Alcorn, where he earned his undergraduate degree.

“My top goal is to increase support for our universities and continue to broaden the message on what a great value our universities offer the state and this nation,” Rankins said Friday.

He has a four-year contract and will be paid the same salary Boyce has received: $358,313.

As commissioner, Rankins will hold a dual role of lobbying lawmakers for money for the universities and overseeing operations of the eight schools. The commissioner has become a more powerful figure in recent years as College Board trustees increased the office’s sway over university leaders, pushing schools to work together.

In 2012, trustees sent Rankins to be the temporary president of Mississippi Valley State after firing a previous president. Rankins was sent on a cleanup mission to a university that was losing students and money, to stabilize Valley enough that trustees could attract a pool of candidates to be the permanent president.

Months after that assignment ended, Rankins found himself again deployed to take over a state university in disarray, this time being sent to Alcorn. Trustees sent Rankins to his alma mater after M. Christopher Brown II resigned under pressure during an investigation by then Commissioner Hank Bounds into purchasing law violations.

It’s the second time in a row the board has named a commissioner without an extended search process, having also chosen Boyce that way in 2015. Trustees then were recovering from a fight over their decision to oust Dan Jones as University of Mississippi chancellor, opening the possibility that lawmakers were going to attack their authority. Promoting Boyce, hired to replace Rankins, was a logical choice after Jim Borsig, who was commissioner a short time, decided return to being president of Mississippi University for Women.

College Board president C.D. Smith of Meridian said while the board had the option to search nationally to fill the role as commissioner, internal searches are more efficient. And, with an internal candidate as “uniquely qualified” as Rankins, Smith said the choice was clear.

“When you’ve got someone that’s ready to go internally, it just makes sense to go forward,” Smith said.

The quick vote means Smith and three other outgoing trustees got to make the decision before they were replaced by four new trustees Gov. Phil Bryant has nominated.

Rankins arrives as universities continue to scrap for more money from lawmakers. Boyce and university leaders including Rankins have lobbied to reduce funding cuts imposed in 2016, warning they’re losing their ability to pay faculty members even as tuition climbs.

Rankins said Friday that securing adequate funding will be his biggest challenge as commissioner before adding, “but I think we’re positioned well to meet those challenges.”

Current budget recommendations call for giving universities 15 percent less in general funds in the budget beginning July 1 than they spent in 2016. Lawmakers could alter those outcomes as they finalize budgets this weekend, but a big boost appears unlikely. Under Bounds and Boyce, universities have focused on increasing enrollment to maintain and increase revenue, with most discounting tuition to attract out-of-state students.

Smith said with his experience at several Mississippi universities, Rankins “knows the challenges that all campuses face,” and hopes Rankins will find ways to make Mississippi’s higher education system more efficient.

While the commissioner has only indirect influence on the lives of students, Rankins takes over a position — once known as executive secretary — that was integral to maintaining segregation at Mississippi universities decades ago. At the bidding of trustees in the 1950s and 1960s, the executive secretary was an important figure in attempt to prevent black students, including eventual University of Mississippi pathbreaker James Meredith, from enrolling at the state’s then all-white schools.

Of the significance of Rankins being the first African-American to serve as commissioner, Smith said he is reminded of Sylvester Croom, Jr., the first African-American head football coach at Mississippi State University and in the Southeastern Conference. Croom famously said of his role, “There ain’t but one color that matters here, and that color is maroon.”

“The only colors that matter are red and blue, maroon, gold and black, blue and white, purple and gold, green,” Smith said, listing universities’ colors.

After earning a bachelor’s degree at Alcorn, Rankins earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Mississippi State University. He was a professor and extension specialist at Mississippi State before becoming the board’s deputy commissioner.

The Board has not formulated a plan to find Rankins’ replacement at Alcorn.

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