JACKSON, MS — Beleaugered Jackson State University President James Lyons Sr. has asked the state legislature to erase a third of a university deficit that could exceed $3 million.
In a bill filed by Sen. Alice Harden (D-Jackson) the university would get $1.1 million to cover part of a deficit Lyons was told would be erased when he became president in 1992.
If the bill passes, however, Gov. Kirk Fordice is expected to veto it, Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove said. About $2.1 million of the projected deficit was created after Lyons became president, said Faculty Senate President Ivory Phillips, who had tried to get a no confidence vote against Lyons.
The money problems, according to faculty members, could force the resignation of Darryl Chistmon, vice president for fiscal affairs.
Meanwhile, State Auditor Steve Patterson is threatening a criminal investigation against Jackson State if officials do not account for $350,000 in missing equipment, including typewriters and computers. The university has 90 days to say what happened to the equipment.
If Jackson State does not get the money from the legislature, Lyons said he would have to impose layoffs and a hiring freeze and limit spending and travel.
Lyons said he is attempting to respond to concerns that the university should not lose services because of a deficit dating back to 1992.
“A part of the debt was supposed to be eliminated and the university community was promised that the next president would start with a clean slate,” said Lyons, former president of Bowie State University in Maryland. “I had a $1.1 million deficit when I walked in the door.”
On Jan. 18, the College Board, which oversees Mississippi’s eight public universities, declared a “limited state of emergency” at Jackson State after a shortfall of $1.5 million was projected for the current year. The College Board has ordered Lyons to eliminate the deficit by June 30.
That portion of the debt, that occurred after he became president, Lyons said, is Jackson State’s responsibility. “Any deficit we have based on our spending patterns or athletic programs, that’s on us,” he said. “We would have to address that ourselves.”
State Rep. George Flaggs (D-Vicksburg) blamed former Higher Education Commissioner Ray Cleere for not erasing the old debt. Flaggs said Cleere told the Mississippi House Appropriations Committee in 1992 that Lyons would inherit a zero deficit.
“Lyons’s request may not go anywhere, but he is right,” Flaggs said. “Cleere misrepresented the deficit. I know he told us that the deficit had been erased. The College Board allowed Cleere to get away with far more than anyone else. That is not fair.”
Cleere was not available for comment.
Lyons’s proposal for the legislature to rescue Jackson State has the support of his critics, including Phillips. “We agree with Harden’s thinking and that of the administration since that part of the deficit should be covered by the legislature or the College Board,” said Phillips, a social science professor. “His administration didn’t build that up. The state legislature should honor the request.”
Despite Lyons’s difficulties, Barbara McDaniel, chairwoman of the Speech and Dramatic Arts Department, believes the legislature should help.
“I think his request is reasonable, although at first I was not sure,” said McDaniel, a Jackson State graduate. “Part of this deficit should have been taken care of. They should have honored their commitment.”
Terris Harris, 25, a senior mass communications major, offered an explanation for the missing typewriters and computers.
“I think more than anything else, old equipment was thrown away and not taken off the books,” he said. “But all of the controversy is going to make me grow closer to the school.”
Lyons’s tenure became bumpy after December 1994 when Executive Vice President Elvalee Banks fired Director of Athletics W.C. Gorden, the college’s most successful coach. The dismissal came just six days before Christmas, which even angered some of Gorden’s most vocal critics.
Banks was demoted in August 1995 to vice president for student affairs and in October 1995 was returned to the classroom to teach education courses.
Following Banks’s demotion, a scandal allegedly involving an assistant basketball coach and player was leaked to the “Jackson Advocate,” a weekly newspaper owned by Banks’s cousin.
The player claimed she was forced into a heterosexual relationship with the assistant coach and a homosexual relationship with the head basketball coach’s wife.
Both coaches have denied the allegations. The assistant coach was suspended pending a university investigation.
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