AUTHOR: SALTER

By his own assessment, Gov. Kirk Fordice is a man with "bigger cojones" (his term, not mine) than his counterparts in other states when it comes to controversial issues.

And give the man his due - Fordice's decision to invoke so-called "emergency powers" to force his four rejected College Board nominees into service last week was one that likely required a washtub full of "cojones." But a study of the state's higher education history also shows that the decision may have likewise been made with a teacup full of brains.

For the last time a Mississippi governor let his personal politics get so deeply intertwined with College Board policies, four of the state's universities lost their accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Fordice on Thursday reappointed four men to the College Board even though a State Senate subcommittee had refused to allow the full Senate to have an opportunity to vote to confirm them this spring. Attorney General Mike Moore said the reappointments last week of the same four unconfirmed nominees may have violated state law.

The appointees are Hassell Franklin of Houston, Thomas McNeese of Columbia, John McCarty of Jackson and Ralph Simmons of Laurel. Morally, intellectually and from the standpoint of business and personal achievement, they are all four qualified, capable men to serve on the College Board. So it's not a matter of Fordice appointing unqualified candidates.

Some senators opposed the nomination of the four white men and asked the governor to choose a black or woman to more readily represent a state that is 50 percent female and 38 percent black.

The governor cited state law in saying he can choose board members to fill vacancies in case of an emergency. The emergency, Fordice said, was that eight of the College Board's 12 members must be present for any official action, and that only six were there Thursday because two of Fordice's first-term appointees were temporarily out of the country during the June 20 meeting in Columbus.

In that meeting, Fordice advisor Greg Hinkebein was quoted as saying of the four reappointed members: "They're here and they're appointed."

He was half-right, according to the Mississippi Constitution, which says that College Board appointees serve "with the advice and consent of the State Senate".

Beyond that legal fight, the history of higher education in Mississippi clearly shows that there exists a precedent case in which a governor let his politics put the state's higher education system in a mess.

In his History of Mississippi , former Mississippi College president and noted historian Richard Aubrey McLemore recounts the following passage in his examination of the development of higher education in this state:

"In 1930, Gov. Theodore G. Bilbo ruthlessly led a movement to remove his political opponents from the administration and faculty of the institutions of higher learning where he was able to control the boards to trustees."

In that era, each state university and college has its own individual board of trustees, each appointed by the governor. Bilbo firmly believed the spoils system applied to higher education and set about to purge the colleges of his political opponents, which represented a substantial number of educators.

History chronicles the fact that in June, 1930, Bilbo used his influence on the boards of trustees to fire the chancellor of the University of Mississippi and the presidents of Mississippi State, Ole Miss, USM and MUW in one fell swoop and hand-pick their replacements. Bilbo was unable to control the trustees at Delta State and simply chose to leave the board at Alcorn State alone, so those two presidents survived the purges.

"The newly-elected heads of the institutions of higher learning were given (by Bilbo) lists of individuals on the staff and faculty that had to be replaced and were offered suggestions (of Bilbo cronies) for their replacements. There were 31 dismissals and two demotions on the University of Mississippi campus. There were reports that a total of 179 faculty and staff members were ousted in the Bilbo purges," McLemore wrote.

The effect of Bilbo's political meddling was swift and sure. Ole Miss, MSU, Southern and MUW all lost their accreditations with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. In the 1931 statewide political campaigns, gubernatorial candidate Mike Conner led the fight to take politics out of higher education.

In 1932, Gov. Conner led the fight to establish a single statewide Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning - the membership of which would be appointed to staggered terms, making it difficult for any governor to dominate. But politics again reared its head in 1940, when Gov. Paul Johnson, Sr. gained control of the board and SACS placed USM on probation and warned the state's other schools that their accreditation was again in peril.

The Mississippi Legislature took control of the situation and allowed the voters to establish the present College Board system in 1942 at the ballot box. Since 1944, the state College Board has operated in its present fashion. The joker in the deck came when Mississippi adopted gubernatorial succession in 1986. Fordice is the first Mississippi governor to have the power to load the board 8-4 with his appointees under that change in state law.

And while Fordice doesn't have the "cojones" to admit it, his move toward a less diverse College Board last week could cause the state's universities to lose accreditation again - which could cost this state millions down the road. And let's not even talk about what the move may cost Mississippi taxpayers in terms of the ongoing attempt to settle the Ayers higher education lawsuit!

Stones, Governor? More like rocks in the head...

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist and editor of the Scott County Times in Forest.

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