Mississippi Names First African American Higher Education Commissioner

Last week it was announced that Mississippi’s Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning named an African American to the position of state’s commissioner of higher education.

Alfred Rankins Jr., a former deputy commissioner and current president of Alcorn State University, will assume the position July 1.

“My top goal is to increase support for our universities and continue to broaden the message on what a great value our universities offer the state and this nation,” Rankins is quoted as saying in an online Clarion-Ledger article reporting on the announcement.

The HBCU / State Pipeline

On one hand, Rankins’s appointment carries significant historical weight. According to the Ledger, the role of commissioner was once central to keeping the state’s colleges segregated—and not all that long ago.

The article states, “At the bidding of trustees in the 1950s and 1960s, the executive secretary [as the commissioner was formerly known] was an important figure in an attempt to prevent black students, including eventual University of Mississippi pathbreaker James Meredith, from enrolling at the state’s then all-white schools.”

But HBCU Digest has pointed out that state systems seem to have gotten into the habit of appointing HBCU presidents from state education boards.

In its post, “When Did HBCUs Become a Leadership Pipeline for State Systems,” the Digest lists several other HBCU presidents who were appointed to their roles after serving in their state systems; or who returned to them after their incumbency, in a kind of revolving door ethos.

Schools mentioned include Albany State University, Fort Valley State University, and North Carolina A&T State University. The article didn’t state whether or not this practice is common among majority white state schools.

The Digest raises three valid concerns:

  • That “leaders are selected without the benefit of a search or input given by the campus community”
  • That those selected may “have worked closely with system leaders who have not always held black college campuses in high regard”
  • That presidents are being “pipelined” with little regard to “institutional fit or skill for the job”

The Ledger mentions that Rankins was appointed to commissioner without an extended search process—and that he wasn’t the first to be appointed that way. His predecessor, Glenn Boyce, was similarly assigned.

It is unclear who will replace Rankins at Alcorn State.

For more, go to HBCU Digest.