by Rachel James-Terry
Inside his top-floor office with large windows that overlook a sprawling, picturesque campus, Dr. William B. Bynum Jr, Jackson State University’s 11th president, is hundreds of miles away from his hometown of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. But it’s a place that’s never far from his heart. It was there that he found encouragement and motivation from teachers, coaches, principals and superintendents — most of whom were graduates of surrounding HBCUs.
“Those people, those teachers, most of them African-American, poured into me and wouldn’t let me slack off. That’s why I’m always shouting out Rocky Mount because of the folks who helped prepare me and who built the foundation that got me here today,” he says.
Now, Bynum is leading one of the largest urban universities in the country with an intensely loyal faculty, staff and alumni base.
“When folks say ‘Thee I Love,’ I clearly understand that they have an outstanding love and pride for this institution,” he says, chuckling.
Accepting charge of a university in the midst of financial challenges could be considered less than ideal. But, since stepping into his role July 1, Bynum has had no second thoughts.
“It wouldn’t have happened if this was not God’s ultimate plan for my life. I think we are a good fit given Jackson State’s current predicament and my background and experiences,” says Bynum, who came to JSU following four years as Mississippi Valley State University’s president.
That “predicament” Bynum speaks of — depleted cash reserves, an approximate loss of $8 million in state appropriations over the past five years, a 50 percent step-down in Ayers settlement revenue, a loan of $6 million and a missed fall enrollment target of 600 to 700 students, has by his own admission, brought some sleepless nights and fatigued days.
But, he assures that the HBCU will be “just fine” due to the school’s exceptional brand, prime capital city location and tenacious faculty, staff, research and publications among other pluses.
At the same time, it’s his “background and experiences,” including degrees in sociology from Davidson College and Duke University, that make him more cognizant of a natural atmosphere of anxiety and speculation in trying times. In an effort to promote his doctrine of transparency, Bynum has held meetings with faculty and staff, fielding questions, laying out the university’s financial situation and absolving conjecture about the depth of cuts. For example, he says there has been no elimination of Title III funding — a U.S. federal grant program to improve education — but acknowledges trimming has been necessary since his arrival.
“There is money in our current Title III budget that will support junior faculty and what they need to do in order to gain tenure. There are also some faculty travel funds set aside for conferences, presentations and various things,” he says.
In a show of shared governance, Bynum and Provost Dr. Ivory Nelson enlisted the school’s Faculty Senate to help set priorities and procedures to balance the allocation of Title III funds.
He also puts to rest talk of a 10 percent salary cut, calling it excessive. Bynum says there is currently no need for an across-the-board reduction, but if the need should arise, he and his administration also would be included in any reductions or cuts. Bynum disclosed that if the university is able to maintain current payroll and fringe-benefits numbers until the end of the fiscal year, further curtailments shouldn’t be necessary. Albeit the need for more employees, the president affirms that a “saving grace” has been leaving vacant 65 positions that were created through retirements or departures since May.
“I know you may need the assistance. But, we’re making individual decisions on what to replace and what to fill,” Bynum told faculty and staff, alluding to possible departmental reorganizations to maximize productivity.
“Decisions that need to be made will not make everybody happy, but we have to make cuts. We are going to have to make some tough priority decisions, and not everyone will be pleased,” he says. “It won’t make everyone happy, but we have to make it. My commitment is that we’re going to close in the black.”
A commitment to closing in the black also means closely scrutinizing contracts for outsourced work in favor of in-house work and zealous fundraising, Bynum says.
Pride and progress
On the latter point, the efforts of faculty and staff is not lost on the president. In the middle of one of his presentations, he makes a point to offer congratulations on the university’s yearly employee support (Y.E.S) campaign. “You, the faculty and staff of this institution, 46 percent committed and contributed a sum amount of money to the tune of over one hundred thousand, so I want to say thank you for that because that shows great support.”
Bynum’s emphasis on financial health, of course, is a backdrop to the university’s ultimate goal — providing students with a high-quality education. Growing the university’s partnerships within the community, raising GPA and SAT scores for incoming classes and increasing first- and second-year retention rates and graduation rates are priorities, says Bynum. Assuring that JSU’s athletic programs and marching band are of the caliber expected from the HBCU also is vital. Bynum notes a recent U.S. News & World Report showing JSU moving from 16th to 15th in a ranking of the 74 best HBCUs as evidence not only of progress but of the university’s continued strong reputation as well.
“It’s good that people in this country and in this state have respect for this institution,” he says. “Of course, I want to see us in the Top 10, so we’ll continue to push and excel and move even higher in the rankings.”
In five years, Bynum is confident that due to the different mechanisms currently being put in place JSU will be a Top 10 HBCU and have a student population of nearly 10,000, despite some of the changes made to scholarship and tuition waiver requirements.
Faith, family, future
Bynum wears his personal mantras — faith, family and the future — like badges. He often speaks fondly of his wife, Deborah Elaine, whose days are occupied with her campus recycling initiative, ‘Be Blue Go Green,’ and the Tiger Career Closet, which offers free professional apparel to students. He is equally proud of their six children and went on a mission to acquire matching JSU onesies for the recent arrival of twin grandchildren. A pensive man who describes himself as “low-maintenance,” Bynum is well acquainted with overcoming adversity and exceeding challenges. The day that his elementary school delivered a box of perishables and canned goods to his home was the moment the president says he realized his family was poor.
“The cool thing about being a child is that you don’t know you’re poor. We didn’t know we were poor, although we were living in the projects,” he says, in an amused tone.
Bynum’s parents separated before he entered the first grade. His mother, on her own, not only raised five girls and three boys — she raised expectations.
“We went from welfare and getting food stamps to getting off of it because she used the local community college to earn two associate’s degrees and with that second associate’s degree she became a pharmacy assistant at K-Mart,” says Bynum. His mother’s use of higher education as a vehicle to uplift their family set an example, he adds, that has helped him throughout his career.
When Bynum is asked how he wants to be remembered, he keeps it simple: “As a good person. People will forget what you did, forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”