Five-Month Stalemate Over New Miss. Leader Persists
Top Candidate Withdraws as Consensus Eludes Community College Panel
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi’s Community College Board is restarting its search for an executive director after the candidate favored by half the 10-member board withdrew following a five-month stalemate over hiring her.
Board Chairman Bruce Martin of Meridian said that Debra West, the board’s deputy director of programs and accountability, ended her candidacy by email.
West pulled her name after a multihour session where the board again failed to resolve the 5-5 tie that has split it since December. She did not respond to a phone call and an email seeking comment.
Martin has contacted former Mississippi State University President Malcolm Portera, who told The Associated Press on that he would lead a new search.
Martin said the board is likely to appoint an interim leader to take over when current Executive Director Eric Clark retires in June. The board coordinates the state’s 15 independently governed community and junior colleges.
Gov. Phil Bryant was accused of improperly influencing the search, urging the board in a November letter to drop requirements for a doctoral degree or experience in educational administration and instead emphasize job training. That move drew concern from the regional accrediting agency for colleges and universities.
Bryant has denied improper involvement. Martin said that Bryant had asked that the board include Tray Hairston, a lawyer who was a policy adviser to Bryant in 2012 and 2013, among candidates it considered.
Spokeswoman Nicole Webb said Bryant is no longer seeking broader job qualifications.
“In a good-faith effort to help the board move forward in its search process, the governor has withdrawn his suggestion that the board consider experience related to workforce training and development when selecting a candidate,” Webb wrote in an email.
Martin said he does not favor changing the requirements.
An internal search named West and Michael Heindl, vice president of administration and finance at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, as finalists. In December, a group of trustees sought to hire West but was defeated on a 5-5 vote, according to minutes of the closed meeting.
A group that voted against West, including Martin, sought to reopen the search after reviewing her qualifications. That effort failed on the same 5-5 deadlock, with West’s supporters opposing it.
In January, the Martin group sought to reopen the search without changing the credentials, but West’s supporters blocked that on a 5-5 vote, according to board minutes.
It’s unclear what other board members think. None of the nine besides Martin returned calls or emails Wednesday.
“I just keep hoping against hope that they will find some common ground,” said Johnny Allen, president of Northeast Mississippi Community College and the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges. “If a new search causes that, it will be worth it.”
Portera, who served 10 years as chancellor of the University of Alabama system after leaving MSU, said it’s not unusual for academic searches to start again and said that he doesn’t see any tension between the job-training and traditional academic functions of community colleges.
“These things are not exclusive of one another,” Portera said.
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