JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The University of Mississippi finds itself in turmoil after trustees ousted well-liked Chancellor Dan Jones, with more than 2,000 students and faculty rallying to his defense Wednesday on the Oxford campus.
Jones helped drive record enrollment and fund-raising, increasing the school's national profile even as state funding was pinched. But the board that oversees the school became uneasy about the way he manages the university hospital's finances and worried he may not be respecting their authority.
"We're not backing down," said Alex Borst, a sophomore and one of the protest organizers. "We're going to continue organizing, emailing, calling, anything we can do."
The demonstration carried over online with social media messages 'IStandWithDan.' It's the latest standoff campus standoff between a university president and its board and has been likened to what happened at the University of Virginia a couple of years ago. In that instance, the president was re-instated after a student and faculty uproar.
The College Board, which is appointed by the governor and oversees the state's eight public universities, quietly moved last week not to renew Jones' contract, but didn't explain its reasoning, leading to wild speculation that included allegations that he was too liberal on race and made rogue financial decisions.
Trying to squash the rumors, the board said Monday that Jones had failed to correct accounting and contracting problems at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson despite years of prodding.
The hospital complex is emblematic of how college has become big business — more than just classrooms and teachers. It has a $1.6 billion budget this year, about 38 percent of the entire budget of $4.2 billion for Mississippi's eight universities.
It's grown to 10,000 employees who occupy a maze of multistory buildings on a Jackson campus, about 150 miles south of the Oxford campus. Jones led the medical center to prominence before he was named chancellor in 2009.
"There is one and only one issue — the board's concerns about the financial management of UMMC and what we perceived as Dr. Jones' reluctance and refusal to cooperate in making changes with respect to that financial management," incoming head trustee Alan Perry said Monday at a board meeting.
Jones rejected retirement or resignation.
"It would have been easier for me, in some ways, and certainly for the board, if I had resigned or retired," Jones said. "But that would have felt dishonest to me, because that was not my choice."
Jones, 66, is a physician and founded a landmark heart study of African-Americans. He beat lymphoma, and had been back on the job for less than a month before the board voted him out.
Some of Ole Miss' biggest donors, a close-knit group in the state, are up in arms, with one foundation saying it will tear up a $20 million pledge for a science building if Jones isn't retained. Alumni including author John Grisham and football icon Archie Manning have also called for Jones to keep his job.
Former Netscape CEO, venture capitalist and Ole Miss donor Jim Barksdale is among those saying the reasons given for dismissing Jones are too flimsy.
"That does not justify the removal of a man of great integrity," Barksdale said.
Lawmakers have also entered the fray, threatening a radical overhaul of the 12-member College Board.
Some Jones backers liken the situation to the 2012 uproar at the University of Virginia, where the board of visitors forced President Teresa Sullivan to resign and then reinstated her two weeks later. And like at Virginia, their playbook is to keep up the pressure.
Through a spokesman, Sullivan "respectfully declines to comment on the events" at Ole Miss. But in a twist, she is scheduled to be its commencement speaker May 9.
Lacking a detailed explanation, some speculated over the weekend that Jones was done in because he was too liberal on race at Ole Miss, still tortured by the violent insurrection that accompanied its integration at federal gunpoint in 1962.
Jones continued a purge of Confederate symbols that began under previous Chancellor Robert Khayat, and reacted aggressively to racial tension during his tenure. Some alumni wanted Jones gone because of this, saying he has tried to rob the campus of its character. But trustees, the majority of whom were appointed by former Gov. Haley Barbour, have largely supported them.
"This is not any right wing political plot," Perry said Monday. "We have fully supported the efforts of Dr. Jones, who following in the steps of Dr. Khayat, has done a great deal to make Ole Miss a welcoming campus to everyone and to move far ahead of where we were given our racial history."
Behind-the-scenes negotiators say they still hope for some sort of agreement.
Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, an Ole Miss alum, said Wednesday he's acted as an intermediary between Jones and the board.
"I was simply appealing to the best judgment of everyone concerned," said the 92-year-old Winter, a venerated figure in the state.
Perry agreed Tuesday that it's possible that some kind of settlement could be reached.
Associated Press writer Michael Felberbaum contributed to this report from Richmond, Virginia.
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