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College board seeks to dismiss lawsuit alleging sex discrimination in JSU presidential hiring

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College board seeks to dismiss lawsuit alleging sex discrimination in JSU presidential hiring

Jun 07, 2024 | 1:11 pm ET
By Molly Minta
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As the search continues for Jackson State University's new president, a panel of educators including (from left) Board of Trustee member Gee Ogletree, Commissioner of Higher Learning Al Rankings, Jr. and search committee chair Steven Cunningham jot down notes during a listening session held on campus to allow feedback from faculty and students, Wednesday, April 19, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today
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As the search continues for Jackson State University's new president, a panel of educators including (from left) Board of Trustee member Gee Ogletree, Commissioner of Higher Learning Al Rankings, Jr. and search committee chair Steven Cunningham jot down notes during a listening session held on campus to allow feedback from faculty and students, Wednesday, April 19, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The governing board of Mississippi’s public universities is seeking to dismiss a federal lawsuit from Debra Mays-Jackson, a former Jackson State University vice president who says she was discriminated against when two less-qualified Black men were hired over her to lead the historically Black university in Mississippi’s capital city. 

Mays-Jackson can’t prove the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees passed her up for the top job at Jackson State because she is a woman, the board has argued in recent filings. 

At most, her allegations may show the 12-member IHL board and its commissioner, Alfred Rankins, hired from their personal network, not that it violated her rights. 

In 2020, the board picked Thomas Hudson, a former special assistant to the Jackson State president whom Mays-Jackson alleged she had supervised. Then, after Hudson’s resignation last year, after a national search, the board appointed Marcus Thompson, a deputy commissioner at IHL who hadn’t worked in a university administration, to lead Jackson State. 

“Even assuming the truth of Mays Jackson’s allegations for purposes of this motion only, they at best suggest that Rankins sought to promote Hudson based on his alleged personal friendship,” an attorney for the IHL board members argued in an April 1 filing. “They do not plausibly suggest that the treatment of Mays Jackson stemmed from her status as a female.” 

The board, in multiple filings that also enumerated spelling errors in Mays-Jackson’s complaint, further argued it can’t be sued as an “arm of the state” and that the 12 board members enjoy qualified immunity, a legal standard that helps protect public officials from liability. In an email, IHL spokesperson John Sewell wrote “it is our policy not to comment on pending litigation.”

Lisa Ross, Mays-Jackson’s attorney, said she expects to defeat IHL’s motion to dismiss. 

“We believe our complaint is sufficient,” Ross said. “Many times I’ve filed discrimination lawsuits. Do all of my claims survive? No. But my major claims of sex discrimination against IHL for the hiring of Thomas Hudson and the hiring of Marcus Thomspon, we expect those to survive any challenge on a motion to dismiss because that’s where we are at this stage.” 

Ross added she is looking forward to discovery to prove new allegations she has introduced in the suit this year, including that Thompson closed an investigation into a sexually explicit photograph Hudson sent while serving as Jackson State interim president without questioning the female employee who allegedly received it. 

A Jackson State spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment from Mississippi Today. The university told the news organization last year it had no comment on the lawsuit.

It is very difficult to prove sex discrimination, especially in the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, said Matthew Steffey, an attorney and a professor at the Mississippi College School of Law. 

IHL’s secret presidential searches don’t make that any easier, Steffey added. Neither do the board’s policies that empower trustees to select virtually anyone known to them to lead the eight public universities. 

“The absence of true government in the sunshine makes the sort of ‘wink and a nod’ discrimination easier,” Steffey said. “The courtroom proof requires something more than a feeling or a hunch or even a recognition that societal discrimination is rampant.” 

READ MORE: ‘Handwritten notes show what IHL trustees thought during JSU listening session’

The already-winding case has seen multiple filings, including a motion from Mays-Jackson to amend her complaint after receiving a right-to-sue letter from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. IHL has opposed that motion and has hired separate attorneys to represent the board as a state agency and the individual defendants.

This year, Mays-Jackson has also introduced new allegations to support her argument that the board has repeatedly denied her the opportunity to lead Jackson State because she is a woman. 

For instance, Mays-Jackson alleges that the board has only named Black women to lead the state’s three public HBCUs after a national search. That is, her lawsuit claims Black men come out on top when the board uses a search process that favors internal applicants. 

In 2020, the lawsuit states the board permanently appointed Hudson president despite Rankins stating Hudson would not be allowed to apply for the job. The move prevented Mays-Jackson from applying for the position — a fact that IHL, in a recent filing, has used in its defense. 

“Her Complaint wholly fails to identify how the individual trustees violated her constitutional rights when the IHL Board failed to appoint her to a position she did not apply for,” IHL wrote

The following year, Mays-Jackson filed a complaint with the EEOC. In IHL’s response to her complaint, attached to one of her recent filings, an attorney hired by the board notes that its presidential hiring policy “plainly allows IHL to forgo an extended search process and to offer the presidency to any person known to them.” 

After Hudson resigned in 2023, Mays-Jackson applied for the vacant role. IHL did not answer Mississippi Today’s questions about the race and gender of the 79 applicants to the role or how many were interviewed.

While the board did not interview Mays-Jackson, she alleged in a Feb. 15 filing that trustees interviewed Thompson, even though he did not apply through IHL’s search firm. 

Though the lawsuit alleges Thompson was not as qualified as Mays-Jackson for the role, the February filing notes he, like Hudson, allegedly had one powerful qualification in his corner: The confidence of Rankins, the IHL commissioner. 

Thompson, the filing states, was permitted by Rankins to investigate an alleged “unwanted and unwelcomed” sexually explicit photograph that Hudson had sent a female employee while serving as interim president. 

“Thompson closed the investigation without questioning the female employee who received the sexually explicit photograph from Hudson,” a February filing states. 

A thorough investigation, the lawsuit claims, would have revealed that Hudson had sent a student and at least one other female employee an uninvited photograph of his genitalia and “demoted a male employee who spoke against Hudson’s unlawful conduct.” 

Hudson, the lawsuit states, then went on to write a letter supporting Thompson’s admission to Jackson State’s urban higher education executive doctoral program, a credential that was cited in IHL’s press release announcing Thompson’s appointment. The lawsuit also alleges that Hudson helped award the deputy commissioner “thousands of dollars in scholarship funding.” 

IHL has not explicitly denied or admitted these allegations, so far sticking to legal arguments in its defense.