Donors, alums rebel against decision to ax Ole Miss chancellor

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Story highlights

  • State board voted 9-2 last week not to renew contract for Chancellor Dan Jones
  • Students, faculty stage demonstrations, as wealthy donors vow to reel in funding
  • Author John Grisham, former quarterback Archie Manning denounce move

(CNN)A decision last week to ax the popular University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones rippled into Wednesday with demonstrations at the Oxford campus, powerful alumni denouncing the decision and wealthy donors threatening to withhold funding to the school.

"It's a damn shame," Ole Miss alumnus Kelly English said about the decision, which he says felt like a "gut punch."
English, a chef and restaurateur who has met the chancellor, called Jones "a man of integrity" who "cares deeply about the university."
    While the state board that voted not to renew his contract, which expires in September, cited "concerns centered on financial issues at the University of Mississippi Medical Center," the chancellor's advocates feel something sinister is at play.
    Jones was magnanimous in his response, saying that while he was disappointed not to be granted another four-year term, he was proud of his accomplishments and every disagreement he had with the board was the product of both parties trying to do what's best for the school. The financial issues at UMMC, though, were only part of the problem, he wrote.
    "I was informed a key concern for the board was my relationship to board members and the Commissioner and my unwillingness to adjust to the board's desired governance structure," he wrote. "Over the last couple of years, I have expressed concern and disagreement with the board in some areas, including the funding allocation plan that distributes state funds to various public universities, business issues at the medical center, and responsibility for managing the selection process for the position of vice chancellor to lead the medical center."
    Jones has been at the university's helm since 2009, when he took over for another popular leader, Robert Khayat, who retired. To hear Jones' supporters tell it, he's ushered in an era of unprecedented GPAs, test scores, enrollment and fund-raising, including three straight years of nine-figure gifts to the school.
    But he also took stands that ruffled many at the 167-year-old university. Among those were measures aimed at dissociating the school from its Confederate history -- the university athletics teams are the Rebels -- including asking the band to stop playing the fight song "From Dixie With Love." Under his tenure, the university also adopted a black bear as its mascot to replace Colonel Reb, a caricature of a plantation owner that had been removed as mascot in 2003.
    "He did amazing things for inclusion," English said. "He tried to rid Ole Miss of the good ol' boy network."
    Unfortunately for his alma mater, English said, that good ol' boy network "caught (Jones) in Jackson."
    When the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning -- fresh on the heels of Jones completing a reportedly successful round of chemotherapy for his lymphoma -- decided in a 9-2 decision not to renew his contract, the outcry was loud (though the board and Jones concur the decision was unrelated to his health).
    A protest Wednesday brought more than 2,500 Jones supporters to the Lyceum, event co-organizer Alex Borst said. It's the university's oldest building, which is located in the middle of campus and houses administrative offices.
    Borst, a sophomore International Studies major, said the board's decision has left him and his classmates "confused."
    "Chancellor Jones has always made himself available to students and always done what's in our best interest," Borst said.
    Khayat and famous alumni -- such as former New Orleans Saints quarterback (and Peyton and Eli's dad) Archie Manning and author John Grisham -- decried the move, as did numerous university groups, including the Faculty Senate, Staff Council, Alumni Association and Black Student Union.
    Supporters also quickly assembled a Facebook page, Twitter feed, website and even a GoFundMe page to cover the costs of protests, all pronouncing "I Stand With Dan," which has been adopted as a hashtag for the movement.
    Nic Lott was the university's first African-American president in 2000-2001. He took to Twitter to express his discontent with Jones' firing, calling him a "great leader who made tough decisions."
    "In my opinion, they've made an unforgivable decision," said alumnus Jim Barksdale, the former Netscape CEO billed by The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson as the university's most generous donor (he's reportedly given $30 million in the last decade and a half).
    And that decision could cost the university at least $20 million from one donor alone, as the newspaper reports that Anthony Papa, president of the Gertrude C. Ford Foundation, said he would not move forward with the grant for a new science building if Jones wasn't reinstated.
    The Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning said in a news release that while it had no concerns regarding Jones' integrity or honesty, the majority of members simply could not find "a path forward to renewal."
    "Dr. Jones has provided strong leadership in many facets of the University of Mississippi during his tenure. However, the Board cannot overlook its longstanding concerns regarding the business and financial affairs at UMMC," the Saturday statement said.
    Borst said this explanation hasn't given Ole Miss students enough information to understand why Jones won't be reinstated.
    "They have to be hiding something, because they aren't giving us all the information," he said.
    CNN reached out to Jim Borsig, Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning's commissioner, for comment. He has not yet replied.
    Jones has no intention of retiring or resigning before September, according to his statement.