By Rachel James-Terry
There is no time to prepare in the moment. One has to be prepared for the moment.
It’s a periodic saying of Thomas K. Hudson, J.D. president of Jackson State University. It also could not be any more applicable to his life than right now. The 1999 graduate went from acting to being named president of his alma mater in less than a year. The state College Board made it official in November 2020.
Hudson admits the presidency was the furthest from his mind when he ended his private law practice and began working for JSU as an EEO officer in 2012.
“I wanted first to become a politician. That was my lifelong dream. Not the person in front of the camera, I wanted to be behind the scenes,” he explains during a one-on-one interview with an organization that helps disadvantaged kids attend college.
Despite Hudson’s ambitions, his career GPS rerouted him back to Jackson State. As president, he acknowledges forward-thinking leaders like Dr. John A. Peoples, Jr. and others, who set the foundation for one of the largest HBCUs in the country with an approximate enrollment of 7,000 students and a 50,000-plus alumni base.
“It’s about building on what others have done before,” he says. “We must learn from the past, adjust in the present and excel toward the future.” For Hudson, the future also includes leaving his alma mater better than he found it. Perhaps some would say so far so good.
Positive press coverage highlighting the University’s collaborative grants and a host of scholarship donations have been abundant. Hudson, along with Ashley Robinson, vice president and director of Athletics, helped land NFL Hall-of-Famer Deion Sanders as head football coach. It was a move that reinvigorated Tiger fans and made waves across multiple media platforms.
Still, steering the University to reaccreditation is Hudson’s current focal point. While he defines accreditation as the backbone of all institutions, “our overarching goal is excellence,” he states at the JSU National Alumni Association Midwinter Conference.
Hudson adds that the reaffirmation process is an opportunity to make the needed programming adjustments to further elevate JSU. But, he stresses, “It is vital to recognize where we are right now.”
Right now, JSU is No. 16 among 79 HBCUs based on U.S. News and World Report and No. 54 in social mobility. Improving JSU’s standing in the rankings is another goal for Hudson and his administration. The aim is to place greater emphasis on JSU’s academic quality.
“This is of the utmost importance because we are aware of the programs and amenities offered by our sister institutions,” says Hudson, pointing out increased attention on the nation’s HBCUs. “But that spotlight means that we must meet the moment through highly competitive academic offerings and campus experiences.”
He is clear that JSU’s faculty and staff are top-notch with academic programming to match. However, he places heavy emphasis on offering students a real-world education and ensuring high job-placement rates for graduates.
“This is how we enroll and engage potential students and one way of retaining current students,” he says.
Speaking of students, Hudson’s connection to JSU predates his days as one. At 3 years old, he accompanied his mother to night classes at the HBCU, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in social work. Today, Hudson is only the second alum to serve as president.
“I always knew I would attend Jackson State,” says Hudson, despite getting accepted into Tougaloo College and Georgia State. “It was the school I knew. My family went here.”
It’s a family that includes three brothers and three sisters, several being JSU graduates. His mother works for the City of Jackson, doing community outreach for the elderly. His father, now deceased, was a long-haul truck driver.
Growing up in West Jackson, Hudson attended Pecan Park Elementary, Blackburn Middle School and Provine High School, receiving his diploma in 1995.
“I can say everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve had people who have helped me along. I was blessed with good principals at every school,” he says. Of Blackburn, he warmly recalls Lepolian Gentry as a tough principal who got results.
“Mr. Gentry had some unorthodox methods. We had the California and Stanford Achievement Tests, and he would celebrate the people who made the top percentile, so that was a big thing among students,” he explains. “He adjusted the (class) schedule, including the bus pickup, so we would get to school a full hour early and go over those tests. He helped give us an advantage.”
What Hudson gained from that experience was the understanding that a person cannot be wedded to one thought, idea or method.
“You have to be flexible. You have to be willing to try new things,” he says, I don’t mind taking calculated risks.”
It’s a position that may involve being disliked or draw criticism, but Hudson believes that the fear of being disliked stagnates talent and that ill feelings are usually fleeting.
“Being successful will have more people embracing you than shunning you, he reassures. “Everyone wants to be successful and be a part of something successful. I don’t think you ever get to a place where your fear of being disliked outweighs your need for excellence.”
As a political science major at JSU, Hudson learned to be self-motivated and self-structured. Outside of his general curriculum, his interest gravitated toward Liberal Arts. “I was always a natural for history and political science courses. That was my wheelhouse.”
A defining influence among his college professors was Dr. Eugene L. McLemore. “He taught my prelaw courses and was very much inspirational. He told my mother, ‘This guy could’ve been at Harvard, so we have to make sure he gets to law school. That always stuck with me,’” says Hudson.
His girlfriend, now wife, Phylandria, aided in his maturation process. “After meeting her, I became more focused on my path and making more intentional decisions.”
His senior year, Hudson interned for Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who then was running for governor. Musgrove would later send a congratulatory note to his former intern.
After graduating, Hudson soon joined Phylandria at the University of Mississippi, where he earned his Juris Doctor. She received a bachelor’s in social work and later a graduate degree from JSU.
The couple, who have been married since 2002, have two daughters Abigail, 7, and Josephine, 9.
“It was surreal and unexpected, but I’m so proud of him,” says Phylandria of Hudson becoming JSU’s 12th president. “He’s been here. He’s been dedicated through several administrations, so I was excited for him.”
The family has since moved into the president’s quarters on the University’s main campus. The A-frame home was built in 1973. Although there have been some updates, all 6,000 square feet still give a very 70s vibe, which is part of its beauty and charm.
“You know, we’re adjusting. I’m still making it our home, so that’s been a bit of a process,” says Phylandria, whose term is ending as the president of the National Association of Social Workers Mississippi chapter. “We’re testing paint colors and things like that. It’s a bit of a challenge, but it’s exciting.”
Toys peak out from the second-story landing. Abigail chatters about having a talent show for her birthday. Josephine disappears outside to explore.
“They were thinking Sasha and Malia (Obama),” says Phylandria, recalling Hudson breaking the news to the girls. “When he was made acting president, we really didn’t go into a lot of details. But now they have a better understanding of what he does, so now they tell me they’re the most famous kids at their school,” she says and laughs.
A few years ago, Phylandria began transitioning from therapist to full-time mom to spend more time with their daughters. Abigail was having some struggles in school, which eventually led to a dyslexia diagnosis. With the assistance of therapy, she is now thriving.
“I never thought that’s what I’d be doing; staying home. But I thank God that I’m able to do it,” she says, noting a lot of people don’t have the opportunity to do the same when faced with challenges.
While life has changed some for the family, one thing is consistent, shares Phylandria, Hudson still cooks breakfast.
“That’s the one thing he was adamant about doing because sometimes he gets home late, and the girls are already in bed. So, he said, ‘I’m going to cook breakfast. I’m going to do that for my girls.’ And he’s still been doing it.”