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

Published 9:24 am Monday, September 30, 2019

Gibert, who is also vice chairman of the Mississippi Lottery Corporation and has publicly campaigned for the chancellor job, received one of the lowest C-SAC scores of any applicant, according to two people who saw the scores, and was not invited for an interview with the IHL board.

The board also declined to interview Jim Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape and a top donor to the school, after he submitted his application three weeks after the deadline, which did not allow the board time to fully review his materials, a source said.

(Editor’s note: Jim and Donna Barksdale are Mississippi Today donors and founding board members; Donna Barksdale serves as board chairwoman.)

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Separate from the advisory board process, search consultants communicated with two other Republican officeholders: Speaker Philip Gunn and state Sen. Briggs Hopson. Several people, including Republican state Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, wrote letters to IHL board members and search consultants on Hopson’s behalf. The IHL board decided against interviewing either Gunn or Hopson.

In executive session during the Sept. 19 IHL board meeting, members settled on extending interview invitations to eight candidates — five high-scoring candidates from the C-SAC applicant pool and three from the consultants’ list.

Sources close to IHL board members and others involved in the search process note that any candidate could decline the invitation or remove themselves from the search process at any time. They also note that the IHL board has the power to add candidates to the interview list before interviews begin.

The eight people who received interview invitations after the Sept. 19 IHL board meeting are:

Michael Benson, president of Eastern Kentucky University since 2013
Kelly Damphousse, chancellor of Arkansas State University since 2017
Sharon Gaber, president of the University of Toledo since 2015
Bill Hardgrave, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Auburn since 2018
Chris Howard, president of Robert Morris University since 2016
Cal Mayo, founding partner of Mayo Mallette PLLC in Oxford
Robert Robbins, president of the University of Arizona since 2017
Fred Slabach, president of Texas Wesleyan University since 2011

Of the eight candidates invited to interview, seven serve in senior leadership roles at major universities. Six candidates have doctoral degrees. Two candidates, Mayo and Slabach, hold law degrees. Three candidates hold degrees from the University of Mississippi: Mayo holds a bachelor’s degree, Robbins holds a medical degree and Slabach holds a law degree from the university.

Howard, who is African American, is the only person of color on the list; Gaber is the only woman.

After the first round of interviews, the IHL board will decide which candidates to bring back for a second round of interviews, currently scheduled for the third week of October. From there, the IHL board will select a “preferred candidate,” according to the process set forth by the IHL.