Mississippi's flagship university has the opportunity to be a leader for institutions dealing with legacies of racism and exclusion. But before that can happen, we need to support Dan Jones's leadership from within.
If there’s anybody Dan Jones should be angry with right now, it’s me. During my time as editor of The Daily Mississippian this past academic year, we broke two stories – the Laramie Project heckling and the James Meredith statue desecration – that drew national condemnation and threw the administration into crisis mode. If The DM hadn’t run those stories, it’s unlikely that many people would have heard about them. It’s also very possible Dr. Jones wouldn’t be under such intense scrutiny in the wake of the university’s diversity and inclusion report that was released Friday.
But the chancellor isn’t the type to blame others or hide from problems. He never once called me to complain, to coerce, or to co-opt our coverage of the negative events. Rather, he’s handled these incidents and the underlying divisions like a doctor, his first career: collect the relevant facts, diagnose the problem, come up with a treatment plan, and follow it relentlessly. And as long as Ole Miss has been living with the cancer of racism and inequity, a smart, compassionate doctor with a patient bedside manner is exactly what we need.
My connection with Dr. Jones started as a personal one. We share the hometown of Hazlehurst, where he and his wife Lydia lived before he was named chancellor, and where they still own a home and visit often. As a teenager, I would sometimes run into him at the grocery store. When I would visit the church where he was an active leader, he would shake my hand and ask how I was doing. He was the commencement speaker at my high school graduation, and our paths converged again that fall as I enrolled at the University of Mississippi the year after he’d moved to Oxford.
Despite our personal relationship, I wasn’t sure what to expect when he called me into his office at the end of my junior year. This time it wasn’t just a friendly chat; it was business. I had just been selected as editor-in-chief of The Daily Mississippian, and he wanted to sit down and discuss how our relationship would continue over the next year.
I was aware when I applied for the job that student newspaper editors and university presidents have a long history of head-butting. It would be my job to closely monitor the decisions he and other leaders at the university made over the next year, and our interests would undoubtedly diverge on some occasions.
When we met in the Lyceum on that spring afternoon, however, any reticence I had was quickly put at ease. Dr. Jones didn’t attempt to justify decisions he’d made in the past. He didn’t talk about his vocal detractors — those who say he’s changed too much and those who say he hasn’t done enough. In fact, what struck me the most is how little he talked about himself at all. He focused solely on his vision for the university and the steps necessary to achieve it. He made it clear with the earnesty of a preacher’s son that he didn’t seek fame or popularity, only a brighter future for the University of Mississippi. That has always been his priority, and I trust his sincerity.
Without what my staff at The DM and I reported, negative stories about Ole Miss likely wouldn’t have made the front page of every national newspaper twice in less than five months, and national television networks wouldn’t have swarmed our campus. While it’s easy to believe that things would have played out differently had we swept those events under the rug, I know this with 100 percent certainty: Dan Jones’s response would not have changed. He would still have invited in outside experts to assess our campus climate. The changes that were announced last week would be implemented with the same conviction and urgency.
Dr. Jones convinced me of his commitment once and for all when I sat down with him at the end of my editorship, a couple of months after the statue desecration. We spoke for over an hour in a conversation that roved from the incident, to the changes that might be implemented because of it, to the consultants, to general race relations at Ole Miss, and to his previous problems dealing with these types of situations.
I have a 3,000-word transcript of that interview, and nearly every word is worthy of publication. But I found one statement particularly revealing:
As I have said many, many times, our university, because of our unique history in regards to race and inclusiveness in higher education, has a larger responsibility and opportunity than most universities do to provide leadership on these issues. We are in imperfect place like any other place. We are a place where we still have demonstrations of hate and intimidation that take place from time to time. The ones that occur here are always met with disappointment and regret, but we’ll always get more attention than most places because of our history. The downside to that is the inconvenience of the negative publicity. The upside is that when the spotlight comes, we have the opportunity to provide leadership. I’m grateful for those opportunities for me personally. I probably spend more time personally than most college presidents or chancellors do dealing with these issues. I’m personally interested in them. I’m personally interested in seeing this university make progress, I’m personally interested in seeing our state make progress, and I’m interested in seeing our country make progress in the very difficult issues of race.
What Dan Jones has done and is continuing to do as chancellor of the University of Mississippi is not only important – it’s necessary. Perhaps that’s what the donors who have threatened to stop writing checks, the upset students who write online letters, or the people using the hashtag #FireDanJones on Twitter don’t see.
Because of our history, what happens at Ole Miss resonates far beyond the manicured entrances to campus. Mississippi’s flagship university has the opportunity to be a global leader for institutions dealing with legacies of racism and exclusion. But before that can happen, we need to support Dan Jones’s leadership from within.