Behind scenes of politically charged Ole Miss chancellor search, a battle rages for soul of university

Published 9:24 am Monday, September 30, 2019

The process of selecting the next chancellor started long before the official interviews will commence this week.

Over a period of several weeks, individuals close to the search outlined to Mississippi Today that search process, one that is designed to be thorough and fair but acknowledges the extreme political nature of the moment. Those sources, who were not authorized to speak with the media about the search, underscored that statute permits the search process to have some flexibility, allowing the board to deviate from publicly stated policy.

To land on eight interview invitations, the board relied on two things: scores from the 39-member Campus Search Advisory Committee — which has become known to insiders as “the C-SAC” — and advice from consultants who had communicated with potential candidates. The search consultants included representatives from Baker Buffkin, a Tennessee-based search firm, and Glenn Boyce, a former IHL commissioner who was awarded a consulting contract by the University of Mississippi Foundation.

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In June, the IHL board appointed the C-SAC, which was conceived as multiracial, intergenerational and including varying political perspectives. It also included students and faculty from the Oxford campus at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and other university constituency groups.

All C-SAC members were required to sign non-disclosure agreements, although the board’s deliberations have leaked to the news media and even shown up on social media and various alumni message boards.

In total, the C-SAC considered 32 candidates who submitted curriculum vitae and other materials.

Among those applicants were high-profile and notable current and former public officials with Republican ties, including recently retired Congressman Gregg Harper, former Congressman Chip Pickering, and businessman and potential 2020 U.S. Senate candidate Gerard Gibert.

Other high-profile applicants include Democratic former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, former state Supreme Court Justice Randy “Bubba” Pierce, and Barry Cannada, a senior partner at the state’s largest law firm, Butler Snow.

In late August and early September, C-SAC members ranked each applicant based on a scoring rubric the search firm developed. The search firm averaged the scores, which were not shared with the C-SAC or the public, and sent them to the IHL board.

None of the politicians who applied for the job were invited by the IHL board to interview. Despite little being known about the process, news spread late last week and sparked concern among alumni circles and the highest reaches of state government.

An adviser to Gov. Phil Bryant, who is a close Harper ally, told Mississippi Today the governor expressed frustration with what Bryant called a “lack of transparency” of the IHL search process in a phone call on Friday morning when he learned Harper did not receive an interview invitation from the IHL board.

Former Republican U.S. Sen. Trent Lott told Mississippi Today he supported Pickering for the role. Lott’s pull at the university remains strong after maintaining close relationships with university chancellors and IHL board members over the years.

“We’ve had a couple chancellor tenures that didn’t work out well,” Lott said last week, speaking of Vitter and Dan Jones, the former chancellor whose controversial ouster came in 2015 after six years in the position. “It’s a very important position for my beloved Ole Miss. We need a very strong leader who can promote a positive image of the state, one that will be able to work with the alumni and can be respected and work with the students and faculty. I have all the confidence that the IHL will do the right thing.”