Among the numerous African-American “firsts” who symbolize racial progress in their fields, Dr. Alfred Rankins is likely to stand out. Last week, Rankins was appointed commissioner of higher education in Mississippi, a state that has a notorious history of resisting racial integration in its educational institutions.
As the first African-American to oversee the state’s eight public universities, Rankins brings to the position years of experience at all levels of academia within the state as a student, faculty member, president of two institutions and deputy commissioner.
The trustees had the option to search nationally for candidates, but with an internal prospect as “uniquely qualified” as Rankins, the choice was clear, said board president C.D. Smith.
“When you’ve got someone that’s ready to go internally, it just makes sense to go forward,” Smith said in a statement from the Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL).
Rankins told Diverse that because of his experiences, he understands “how the policies being implemented at the system level can be applied practically on our campuses.”
He also is aware of the daunting challenges facing the eight institutions, which include three historically Black universities, as a result of stiff budget cuts passed by the legislature.
“I think the challenge for all universities will be funding because all universities will have to find ways to fill the gap when state support is flat or down,” said Rankins, who takes over as Commissioner July 1.
But Rankins said he recognizes the special difficulties facing the HBCUs.
“I think for HBCUs, it will be even more of a challenge because they will also be dealing with the loss of the Ayers funding,” Rankins said.
He was referring to the landmark 2002 federal court settlement of a lawsuit filed in 1975 by Jake Ayers, Jr. and others who accused Mississippi of operating an unequal system of higher education. Most of the $503-million settlement, designated for projects at the state’s three HBCUs — Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State — has been distributed and is scheduled to be paid off by 2022-23.
Rankins said those schools “will have to plan how they will sustain those programs without that added support from the state. Each university is working towards a plan on how to manage life on campus without those funds.”
There is significant irony in Rankins’ appointment. The position, formerly that of executive secretary, was key in leading the opposition to the historic integration of Ole Miss by James Meredith in 1962.
“The IHL board members and the executive secretary were all segregationists back then and were responsible for the enforcement of segregation in higher education,” said Dr. Robert Luckett, a civil rights historian and director the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University. “Next week, we’re approaching the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, so within 50 years we now have a Black commissioner of higher education in Mississippi. That is remarkable.”
Luckett also points out the significance of the fact that Rankins is currently president of Alcorn and is about to assume the top higher ed post in the state. “When Jake Ayers filed his lawsuit over 40 years ago, Alcorn’s entire budget was less than the budget of the Ole Miss athletic department,” Luckett explained. “And now the Alcorn president is going to be the commissioner.”
A native of Greenville, Miss., Rankins received his bachelor’s degree from Alcorn State and master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Mississippi State. As deputy commissioner, he was called upon by the IHL board to stabilize troubled institutions. He served in that role as interim president of Mississippi Valley State and again when he was appointed president of Alcorn in 2014. He has a four-year contract as commissioner and will be paid the same as his predecessor, $358,313.
Luckett said despite the state’s past and present problems, Rankins’ appointment signals progress.
“As a civil rights historian, I get called often and asked, ‘Why hasn’t Mississippi changed?’” Luckett said. “We most certainly have lots problems that still need to be addressed — racism, inequality, civil rights, human rights — but the fact that we now have a Black commissioner of higher education gives you some indication that something has changed for the better — hopefully. It’s certainly a watershed moment.”