Tougaloo Is a ‘Natural Fit’ for New Interim President
Appointment strengthens historic relationship between Brown University and Tougaloo College
Dr. James Wyche, professor of medicine and associate provost at Brown University and executive director of the Leadership Alliance, a 29-school consortium dedicated to improving the participation of underrepresented minorities in graduate and doctoral studies, is on leave from both posts to become the interim president of Mississippi’s Tougaloo College. And the chairman of Tougaloo’s board couldn’t be more pleased.
“You wouldn’t believe the response this news has generated,” says LeRoy Walker Jr., a Jackson, Miss., businessman. “People have been asking, ‘LeRoy, how did you do this? How did you pull this off?'”
Walker’s response is a straightforward one. “I tell them, the relationship was already here,” he says. “Dr. Wyche has simply seen the light.”
Indeed, the fact may not be widely known, but it’s quite true that Brown University and Tougaloo College have had a continuous sister campus relationship for 37 years.
“If you speak to anyone who’s remotely connected to the civil rights movement, they will tell you that Tougaloo College was one of the key locations,” says Wyche. It was, in fact, a “safe haven” both for the Freedom Riders and for a veritable stream of student activists from the North into Mississippi.
Exchanges first of students and then of faculty began during those turbulent years, and the relationship has persisted and deepened with every passing year, Wyche explains. A Brown University official serves on the board of Tougaloo College. Brown has a committee devoted to Brown-Tougaloo relations. The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have both cited the Brown-Tougaloo relationship as a model for others to follow in forging relationships between small colleges and large universities.
Wyche says taking the Tougaloo post was not a difficult decision. He was already at a crossroads professionally. His cancer research team was successful and well established — it had been in operation since 1974. And his administrative and fund-raising duties at Brown and the Leadership Alliance had prepared him to take “the next step.”
“You only need to come to Tougaloo once,” he explains. “The need is high, the history and the legacy are strong, and, if you look at what’s happening in Mississippi today — particularly compared to the ’60s and even the ’80s — there is a four-letter word for what’s going on and that is ‘hope.'”
Wyche adds, “I want to build on a legacy of evolution, of change at an institution that I wouldn’t say is floundering but that needs a new direction.”
That new direction will include outreach to another historically underserved minority — Mississippi’s Choctaws — as well as building bridges with the state’s growing Latino population. And it will include creating innovative new programs that will make Tougaloo more broadly attractive in the South Central and Southeastern regions.
“There’s a large Nissan car factory being built in Canton — a straight shot from Jackson on Interstate 55,” Wyche notes. “In addition to which, the growth of the motel-hotel industry has been nothing short of remarkable.”
Tougaloo can and will do much more, Wyche says, to make its graduates competitive in the state’s rapidly changing employment environment.
Of course, that means big changes. In addition to planning new programs and laying the foundation for beefing up existing ones, Wyche is looking at consolidating operations and decision-making to ensure that there is “appropriate overlap but not duplication.”
And in contrast to other campuses where rapid change has brought about a form of institutional and academic gridlock, Tougaloo officials appear to welcome Wyche’s ideas.
“It helps that I have a history with many of the people here. Some of the faculty and trustees have known me for as much as 12 years,” Wyche explains. “I have laid out specifically what I want to do to the board and selected faculty and division deans, and if I had gotten even mixed reviews, I would have backed off. But there’s been uniform endorsement of my plans, and so we’re moving forward.”
Walker describes Wyche’s rapport with the Tougaloo team as “really a natural fit. It’s like an eclipse, with the moon and sun aligned at exactly the right time,” he says.
“(Wyche) is extremely visionary, and he has in addition a true consciousness for caring. We clearly need the kind of support and direction he can provide. And we think he could put Tougaloo into a renaissance period — both in our economic development and in the academic arena.”
For now, Wyche is serving as the interim president, “and as chair, I will honor the (selection) process,” Walker says. But he’s betting that “Tougaloo College will grow on Dr. Wyche. This place becomes addictive.”
— By Kendra Hamilton
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