JSU president defends ‘unity’ plan

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 30, 2010

JACKSON (AP) — Jacobs State University doesn’t exist, but it has caused a furor at the Mississippi Capitol.

The fictional school is the brainchild of Jackson State University President Ronald Mason, who has come under fire after pitching his idea to legislators and alumni to ‘‘unify’’ JSU with the state’s other two historically black universities.

Under his plan, the consolidated school would be renamed Jacobs State University, and its mascot would be the Phoenix.

Mason has received a sharp rebuke from black lawmakers and supporters of historically black colleges and universities over his slide presentation, ‘‘A Proposal to and for Black People of the State of Mississippi.’’ He’s also been labeled a traitor by some who said Mason initially rejected Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposal in November to merge Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University with JSU to reduce budget costs.

On Friday, Mason said he’s still against Barbour’s plan ‘‘to force’’ a merger. But, Mason said his unification idea should be discussed since black schools usually have fewer resources than their predominantly white counterparts, and are struggling to survive in the tough economy.

‘‘My students feel like I double-crossed them,’’ Mason told reporters Friday in his office during an interview broadcast live on JSU’s campus television station.

‘‘People have accused me of having a back door deal with the governor,’’ Mason said. ‘‘That is not true. The idea about Jacobs State is my idea alone.’’

House Universities and Colleges Committee Chairman Kelvin Buck and members of the state College Board have said Barbour’s proposal to merge the three black schools and to combine Mississippi University for Women with Mississippi State University is dead on arrival.

Barbour said the restructuring could save the state $35 million.

A spokesman for Barbour said Friday that the governor had never discussed any mergers with Mason.

Mason, JSU’s president 10 years, said he’s had the idea for a consolidated black university for a while, but his proposal ‘‘was accelerated’’ after Barbour made his recommendation. Mason said his presentation was supposed to have been kept private, but was leaked to the media.

Mason said over the next two years, JSU could be facing a projected funding loss of about 23 percent, or about $12 million.

‘‘The truth sometimes is a difficult thing to deal with. It’s much easier to play to people’s fears than to tell them the honest reality of things,’’ Mason said Friday.

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus held a news conference this week to denounce Mason’s idea. A rally held Thursday at the Capitol drew more than 200 people protesting any talk of mergers.

Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens, said Friday it was ‘‘appalling’’ that any president of a historically black university would even consider the merger. Bryant said he’s nearly certain the merger will become a non-issue by the end of the session, but he’s worried about how the furor over Mason will impact JSU.

‘‘I don’t think it helps the school to even have a dialogue like that. If rumors continue, it could eventually hurt enrollment,’’ said Clark, a graduate of Mississippi Valley State University.

Sen. Alice Harden, D-Jackson, said she was flabbergasted when Mason recently told her about his plan.

‘‘For me, it was a betrayal because he said he wasn’t in favor of a merger and now all of a sudden he’s kicked it in high gear,’’ said Harden.

Harden said Mason has lost credibility within the HBCU community.

Mason still has some supporters. Bishop Ronnie Crudup, the pastor of New Horizon Church International in Jackson and a member of the organization Jacksonians for Progress, agreed the black community should discuss ways to strengthen black schools.

‘‘My concern is that of course, the institutions will be cut down significantly and weakened, they’ll literally cease to be the institutions that we need them to be,’’ Crudup said. ‘‘A lot of people are going to lose their jobs. A lot of courses will no longer be.’’

The supposed university was to be named for H.P. Jacobs, a self-taught slave who became a minister and doctor who founded the Mississippi Baptist Convention and Natchez Seminary, which eventually became JSU.

‘‘My thinking is that he’s a perfect symbol of the ability to overcome great oppression,’’ Mason said. ‘‘If you’re going to pick a name for a great black institution, I just think that would be a good name.’’