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Miss. HBCU Merger Proposal Halted; JSU President Faces Scrutiny

Jackson State University President Ronald Mason detonated an explosive in the middle of a heated debate on Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposed merger of three Mississippi HBCUs.

And the one getting burned appears to be Mason himself.

In a strange turn of events, Mason, who has been at the helm of Jackson State for 10 years, was quietly promoting his own plan to combine Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley, while publicly opposing the governor’s proposal.

In a Dec. 16 National Public Radio interview, which Mason placed on his own JSU website, he laid out his position on Barbour’s proposal: “… we can talk about working together to produce a better educational product, but the notion of merging is, first of all, politically unfeasible. And, secondly, you know, not well thought out.”

Then last week, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger newspaper obtained a copy of a PowerPoint presentation Mason had prepared for some state lawmakers. In a written summary of the proposal, which he sent to Diverse, Mason calls for the creation of “Jacobs State University.”

“Mississippi’s big three should become the big four. We should create a new HBCU,” Mason stated in the document. “I would call it Jacobs State University after H.P. Jacobs, a slave who taught himself to read and write. … Jacobs State University would include Alcorn College, Mississippi Valley College and Jackson College, each with a specific purpose and role.”

When asked how long he had been formulating the Jacobs State plan, Mason said in an e-mail message to Diverse, “I have [been] thinking about the benefits of unifying the three Mississippi HBCUs for several years.” 

So while Mason was speaking out against Barbour’s merger proposal – and calling mergers in general “politically unfeasible” – it appears he had been contemplating a “unification” plan of his own.

But, as Mason predicted, it has been “politically unfeasible.” Politicians, educators, and students and alumni and community leaders have vehemently opposed the concept of any merger, and the state College Board president called it “dead on arrival” at a legislative committee meeting. On Tuesday, the proposal failed to gain legislative committee approval and will not be considered by the full legislature.

The discussion has now moved from merging the schools to how to adequately fund them and, most recently, what the future holds for Mason. He has been called a traitor – and worse on social networks and blogs.

“I’m not sure of what will happen to Mason, but I think his future at JSU is on rocky ground,” says community activist Othor Cain, who organized protests against Barbour’s merger proposal and who has been equally opposed to Mason’s Jacobs State proposition. “Mason has had a long history of a shaky relationship with the alumni. A serious disconnect and lack of trust exists.”

State Rep. Alyce Clarke, who says she was one of the legislators who viewed Mason’s presentation, opposes it. “I don’t think it’s a good plan, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere. In my opinion, we need to be trying to come up with additional funds for the schools, which is why I’m pushing for a state lottery.”

Clarke introduced a bill to put a state lottery system on the November ballot in hopes of using the proceeds for college scholarships. Opposed by the governor and major church groups, the lottery proposal has died after the House Gaming Committee failed to vote on it by a Tuesday deadline.

As for Mason, Clarke says “he misled us” when he presented his proposal to her and another legislator last week. “I’m very upset about the way he went about it,” Clarke says.

One of Mason’s longtime critics, Dr. Gene Young, a former Jackson State professor who ran afoul of the president shortly after Mason arrived a decade ago, has a bitter assessment of Mason’s actions, saying: “He says he’s against the merger but in favor of unification. What’s the difference? I’m surprised it took this long for people to wake up and see him for what he is.” Young went on to quote Malcolm X, saying Mason has “hookwinked, bamboozled and lied” to the community about his actions.

Mason does have supporters, however, as even Cain acknowledges. “While some people are telling him to pack his bags, some others are telling him ‘thanks for being proactive,’” Cain says.

One of those is Dr. Charles Holbrook, a Jackson State philosophy professor and local minister. Holbrook says Mason’s critics have been too quick to dismiss Mason’s ideas. “I think they are jumping the gun. I think people should get the whole picture before they rush to judgment, and we should not be afraid to talk about it. We have to be open to new ideas because we don’t want to lose our HBCUs.”

 Cain has scheduled another town hall meeting on Jackson State’s campus for Feb. 9, which he says Mason has agreed to attend to present his ideas to the public.

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