JACKSON, Miss.—Jackson State University President Dr. Marcus Thompson entered the third-floor student ballroom of the Student Union and shook hands with most of the roughly 50 people gathered for his first press conference as the new leader of Mississippi’s largest historically Black university on Thursday.
He told supporters that his administration will focus on building bridges, accountability, customer care and financial sustainability.
“I want to say our students are my priority and will be the North Star of my administration,” he said.
The day marked Thompson’s fourth on campus. He said he had spent the first few days in student spaces talking to and eating with them as he took stock of problems facing the university and how to solve them.
“They are very smart, and they’ve given me a lot of solutions in many areas to some of the challenges that we have,” he told those gathered. “But that’s one of the things I really want to do … I plan to spend a lot of time doing active listening, listening to our stakeholders.”
Thompson said he is focused on improving campus safety and that he and JSU Chief of Police Herman Horton have already begun discussing necessary changes, including adding cameras around the campus and hiring a new campus security officer. He also plans to move into the president’s home to fully experience campus life.
“It’s important for me to have first-hand knowledge of what our students are experiencing as campus residents,” he said. “We’re going to be neighbors with our students, and I try to run a few miles a day, so I’ll plan to get out and jog around the campus inspecting grounds as I go. This campus is my home, too, and I want everyone to feel safe day and night.”
The recent appointment has drawn mixed reactions. Many have felt that the process lacked transparency and thoroughness. Thompson was serving as IHL’s deputy commissioner and chief administrative officer when the board selected him. In his speech, he expressed his gratitude to those who hired him.
“I’d like to thank the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning for placing this awesome responsibility in my care and entrusting me to lead my alma mater, a place where I’ve had the privilege to teach exceptional students and to learn among some of the most passionate dedicated faculty and staff,” Thompson said. “So my time at Jackson State University has certainly played a pivotal role in my life.”
JSU Chief Communications Officer Alonda Thomas said the administration is looking ahead and would not accept questions regarding events during previous administrations—effectively steering the media away from questions about a recent lawsuit former JSU Vice President Debra Mays-Jackson filed. It accused IHL of sex discrimination in the 2020 president search and the former president of sexually inappropriate conduct.
Thompson did not respond to questions from the media on the release of the two men arrested in connection to the on-campus shooting death of student Jaylen Burns in October. The new president said the matter remains “an ongoing investigation” and that he had asked to meet with the family of the victim.
“Probably on day two, I asked our vice president for Student Affairs to set up a time for me to speak with the family of Jaylen Burns as we continue to be in prayer for his family,” Thompson said.
He also would not comment on personnel changes but said he is working to assess leadership and cabinet positions.
“I’m really looking for an opportunity to learn more about the cabinet,” Thompson said. “As I stated, I know all of them very well. I’ve worked with them over the course of my 15-year stint perhaps at IHL. But we’ll be assessing all areas to make sure that we are positioned again to take care of our students who are our priority.”
Thompson said he will begin a president’s tour this spring to meet with prospective students, high-school staff and alumni in an effort to increase JSU’s presence in the state and reignite interest in the university. He also plans to host listening sessions with students, faculty and staff.
“This institution is ripe with research innovation, ripe with creativity and opportunity that the world is thirsting for, and we’re prepared to meet this moment,” he told those gathered. “I’m ready to help our students become who they are meant to be.”