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Former Jackson State VP Accuses IHL of Sex Discrimination in President Search

The IHL board discussing at a triangular table
Former Jackson State University Vice President Dr. Debra Mays-Jackson filed a lawsuit against the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees on Nov. 17, 2023, alleging discrimination in its hiring practices after it skipped over her in its 2020 search for JSU president. On the same day, the board named a new president. Photo by Torsheta Jackson

Former Jackson State University Vice President Dr. Debra Mays-Jackson is alleging that the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees engaged in sexually discriminatory hiring practices after it skipped over her to hire Thomas Hudson as the historically Black university’s president in 2020.

IHL suddenly placed Hudson on administrative leave in February 2023; he resigned from the position at Mississippi’s largest HBCU in March without explanation from him or the board that oversees Mississippi’s colleges and universities.

Headshot of Debra Mays-Jackson
Debra Mays-Jackson’s Nov. 17, 2023, lawsuit alleges that IHL discriminated against her when it named Thomas Hudson president in 2020 after a shortened search process. Photo courtesy JSU

Mays-Jackson filed her complaint on Nov. 17—the same day IHL announced Marcus L. Thompson as JSU’s new president to replace Hudson. It names 11 current and former IHL board members in addition to the commissioner, Alfred Rankins Jr., as defendants and asks a jury to award compensatory damages and name Mays-Jackson as JSU’s president.

Mays-Jackson alleges that Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning board members hired Hudson and denied other qualified applicants the opportunity to seek the presidency.

IHL appointed Hudson as interim president in February 2020 when William Bynum resigned after Clinton police arrested him in a prostitution sting; at the time of his appointment, Hudson had been serving as Bynum’s special assistant to the president.

The board permanently appointed Hudson to the position in November 2020 after a shortened IHL search. The lawsuit alleges that Mays-Jackson was not allowed to apply for the position because IHL did not conduct a standard nationwide search.

Lawsuit Cites Misconduct Allegations

At the time of Thomas Hudson’s initial appointment, Dr. Debra Mays-Jackson served as JSU’s vice president and chief of staff. In that role, she oversaw JSU’s departments of public safety, student affairs, student government associations and residential activities; internal audits of university assets; and the management of JSU’s Title III grants. Her title placed her second in charge and required her presence in Bynum’s absence. It also placed her in a supervisory role over Hudson.

Before that, she served as the first woman vice president of Hinds Community College-Utica campus in 2013. Her tenure at Hinds saw increased enrollment at the Utica and Vicksburg campuses, a re-establishment of the campus’s historic agriculture program and increased funding. 

“Debra Mays-Jackson was clearly more qualified for the position of president of JSU when Hudson was named President of JSU,” the lawsuit says.

The complaint also alleges that board members did not adequately investigate Hudson or reports of inappropriate conduct.

“Namely, Rankins and other IHL employees knew or should have known that Hudson, while serving as Interim President, sent an employee an unwelcome and uninvited photograph of his genitalia to a JSU employee and demoted another employee who complained about his unlawful conduct,” the complaint alleges.

The complaint does not name the source of those allegations; no officials have publicly accused Hudson of any wrongdoing nor said whether any such allegations prompted IHL’s decision to place him on leave.

Headshot of JSU President Thomas K. Hudson
Debra Mays-Jackson’s lawsuit alleges that IHL failed to investigate Thomas Hudson, pictured, for allegations of “conduct unbecoming a college president” prior to appointing him as JSU’s president in November 2020. The lawsuit does not name the source of the allegations and officials have not publicly accused Hudson of wrongdoing. Photo courtesy JSU

The Mississippi Free Press repeatedly attempted to reach Hudson for comment but did not hear back by press time.

“According to information and belief, Rankins and other IHL officials knew, or should have known, prior to Hudson’s appointment as JSU president, that Hudson had engaged in conduct unbecoming a college president,” the complaint alleges.

Complaint Alleges Discriminatory Pattern

In the filing, Dr. Debra Mays-Jackson accuses board members of sex discrimination, noting that IHL has only named two women as presidents for Mississippi’s seven HBCUs in history. The board selected Carolyn Meyers as JSU president in 2010 and Felecia Naves as Alcorn State University president in 2019—each following nationwide searches.

The lawsuit claims that IHL decided to reverse course on holding a national search for JSU after a woman emerged as the top candidate to replace Meyers when she stepped down in 2016.

“Upon information and belief, although IHL commenced a national search to replace Carolyn Meyers, it abandoned the national search after Roslyn Clark Artis, a female emerged as the top contender for President of JSU,” the lawsuit alleges. “Rather than name a highly qualified female to replace Carolyn Meyers, IHL selected Bynum as JSU’s 11th President, even though Bynum was not a finalist for the position.”

Debra Mays-Jackson Nov 17 2023 complaint
Click the screencap to read Debra Mays-Jackson’s Nov. 17, 2023, complaint.

The complaint says that when IHL appointed Elayne Hayes Anthony to temporarily lead the university after Thomas Hudson’s resignation, the body named her “acting president”—not “interim president”—and did not give her the same autonomy as the prior interim president.

IHL and JSU are remaining tight-lipped about the lawsuit. JSU Director of Public Relations Rachel James-Terry said the university has no comment in a Nov. 17 email.

“We are not able to comment on litigation matters,” IHL Assistant Commissioner for Government Relations Kim Gallaspy said in an email the same day.

Jackson State University is the state’s largest historically Black university. Marcus L. Thompson is set to begin serving as president on Nov. 27. Hudson congratulated him in a tweet on the day of the announcement.

“I extend personal and heartfelt congratulations to Marcus Thompson on his appointment as the 13th President of @JacksonStateU,” he wrote. “As a proud alumnus, I am proud to support you in your work to improve my Dear Old College Home.”

The Mississippi Free Press asked Debra Mays-Jackson’s lawyer for comment on Nov. 17 but did not hear back by press time.

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