Hed: Subcommittee tables vote on College Board nominees
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson
JACKSON – The lack of racial and gender diversity among Gov. Kirk Fordice’s four nominees to the state College Board was at the center of more than four hours of testimony Wednesday before the Senate Universities and Colleges Subcommittee.
In the end, the committee tabled votes on the nominees – all white males. Sen. Johnnie Walls, D-Greenville, who presided over the subcommittee, promised the issue would be “resolved” before the legislative session ends next week. The three black members of the five-person subcommittee said they needed more time to consider the nominees before voting.
Committee members said they struggled with the process because the nominees are “eminently qualified,” but not representative of the population of the state.
The four nominees are Hassell Franklin of Houston, Ralph Simmons of Laurel, Thomas McNeese of Columbia and John McCarty of Jackson. Their 12-year term on the Institutions of Higher Learning Board is subject to Senate approval.
“All of the men are honorable men. There is no question about that,” said Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood. But Jordan, a black member of the Senate, went on to say that the governor could have made appointments that “represent all 2.6 million people in this state without putting us in this spot.”
Sen. Grey Ferris, D-Vicksburg, a white member, asked the subcommittee to approve the four appointments because of their background in business and community involvement. But he went on to say, “it is hard for us to understand why the governor chose not to name at least one black member.”
All expressed regret at putting the nominees through the process.
The process could be circumvented to allow the nominees to be confirmed by the full Senate without the approval of the subcommittee, but that would be rare.
Disappointment in process
The snag in the nomination process disappointed Fordice spokeswoman Johnna Van.
“They are not only qualified, but well qualified,” Van said. “They will represent all the people of Mississippi very well.”
Van said Fordice does not make appointments based on race or gender but on qualifications. She pointed out that earlier in the day the same subcommittee approved four appointments to the community and junior college board. The four were two white males, a black woman and a white woman.
If the four appointments to the Institutions of Higher Learning Board had been similar to those made to the community college board, Walls said the subcommittee’s task would have been much easier.
Regardless of their color or gender, the four nominees to the state College Board promised to represent all the people of Mississippi. They made a commitment to all eight universities, including the three historically black schools.
“Look at my history,” said Franklin, who employs 1,200 people in the furniture industry in Northeast Mississippi. “Some of my best employees are black. Some of my top department heads are black.”
Some of the nominees admitted they were surprised that Fordice appointed four white males.
“It bothers me that a diverse group is not represented here, but I have no control over that,” said McNeese, an attorney in Columbia.
McCarty, whose family owned the McCarty Farms chicken processors before selling it, spoke of his work for Rust College, a private, predominantly black school in Holly Springs. He said one of his greatest joys of life is serving on the board of Rust College even though he almost refused the position because he lives four to five hours away from the school.
“I think I have trained all of my life for this type of public service,” McCarty said.
If McCarty and the other three are confirmed, the Institutions of Higher Learning Board would consist of eight white men, two black men and two white women. Walls said this was not indicative of the population of the state.
An important post
Walls pointed out that women make up 53 percent of the voting-age population and that blacks make up 35 percent of the population. He said white males make up 32 percent of the voting-age population, but have been 74 percent of Fordice’s nominees to various boards and commissions.
Walls said the nominees are especially important because no other vacancies are due to open up on the board until the year 2000.
Perhaps the length of tenure and power of the board members are why the hearing generated so much interest. The old Supreme Court chamber of the state Capitol, which seats about 200, was filled for most of the hearing Wednesday afternoon.
Various groups and individuals spoke against the nominees – all saying they had no problem with the individuals – but thought more diversity is needed.
In the end, though, Jordan made the motion to table Simmons’ nomination. He was supported by Sen. Alice Harden, D-Jackson, who is also black. The two white members of the committee, Ferris and Tommy Moffatt, R-Gautier, disagreed with the motion.
Walls, who also is black, then voted to table to break the tie. Ironically, Walls, who was nominated to the College Board in the 1980s by former Gov. Ray Mabus, was rejected by the Senate.
Walls, who appeared to struggle with his vote, admitted that the process was the toughest event he had gone through during his public career, “except for when I was the subject like they (nominees) are now. I know what they are going through.”
After the Simmons’ nomination was tabled by a 3-2 county, Ferris voted to table on the next three, saying he understood the black members needed more time.