“Welcome to the 2019-2020 academic year at Thee Jackson State University,” bellowed Dr. William B. Bynum Jr., 11th president of the HBCU, as he delivered the State of the University address at the school’s annual Fall Faculty & Staff Seminar on Aug. 8.
“I’ve had a really good past two years knowing I’m where the good Lord wants me to be at this particular time in my life,” he said. “I’ve had a ball. I’m living the dream.”
When he first became president in 2017, Bynum said he found a small lapel pin that read “living the dream” that he keeps in his closet, so as he dresses each morning he is reminded that he is living the dream.
“Because I’m doing what I believe the good Lord put me on this earth to do and that’s to work with young people and their families who are seeking higher education.”
JSU is a big deal
Over the past two years, Bynum said he has learned that Jackson State University is indeed a big deal. He described the institution as one viewed with respect and admiration by the community, then said to the audience, “There are a whole lot of folks who would love to be in the seats that you’re sitting in.”
Referencing his presidential tours, with the Sonic Boom of the South and JSU recruiters, to various Mississippi high schools, Bynum detailed parents and students expressing gratitude for the visit when they are unable to make it to the campus.
“I know that because I’ve talked to countless persons who said not only do they look forward to us coming to town, but when we leave town, we’ve been the talk of the town ever since. Jackson State University, y’all, is a big deal,” said Bynum, who also added that concerning economic impact the HBCU is one of the largest employers and producers of jobs in the state
In terms of JSU’s community footprint, the president shouts out the Margaret Walker Center, host of this year’s Association of African-American Museums, which drew nearly 400 people to the 220-acre campus.
“Folks who are working to preserve the culture of the African diaspora every day assembled right here …Again, looking forward to going back to their home communities and telling everyone about how Jackson State is a big deal. We’re a big deal, y’all,” he reiterated to listeners.
When it comes to JSU’s evolution from Natchez Seminary to Jackson College to a higher education research university, the president urged employees to continue to build upon their duty and responsibility to the JSU legacy.
“Each and every one of us was put on this earth to do something special, and if we don’t do it, it won’t get done. So again, I believe that each one of us is here at this particular point in time in our lives for a reason. Embrace that reason,” he said.
He also thanked faculty and staff for adopting his three pillars – student-centeredness, teamwork and collegiality and the pursuit of excellence.
Bynum voiced pride in hearing students like Jordan Jefferson, a senior political science major and SGA president, talk about how the staff and faculty have improved their treatment of students from his days as a freshman until now.
Despite challenges, we’ve done well
Turning his address to “the elephant in the room” – JSU’s financial standing – Bynum said, despite enrollment concerns and the Ayers stepdown, which equates to $6 million less a year, the institution is faring well.
“We’ve done well in terms of tightening our belts. It may be some things we want but can do without, and as a result, we’ve been able to rebuild our cash reserves,” he shared.
Inheriting seven days of cash on hand at the start of his presidency, Bynum reported with enthusiasm that there are currently 40 days of cash on hand reserves. His words were met with loud applause from the auditorium.
He also revealed that the debt coverage ratio was now above the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning’s 1.5 threshold, a significant increase from the -0.7 rating when Bynum took over.
Switching gears, the president emphasized the importance of accreditation. He reminded attendees that without it, the school can lose the ability to get federal student financial aid, which can drastically affect enrollment numbers. “We’ve done very well in terms of our fifth-year review report,” he said.
Bynum then thanked Dr. Shemeka McClung, director of Institutional Research, her team and Dr. Lynda Brown-Wright, provost, for working closely with liaisons from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
“We’re now working to prepare for their return visit in 2021,” he informed the audience.
Bynum, who has always touted student-centeredness, talked about the new Division of Student Success and reorganizing units like enrollment and academic advising under that umbrella which he stressed as extremely important when improving retention and graduation outcomes.
“The federal government is very serious. SACS is very serious about making sure that we move the needle as it relates to retention and graduation rates,” Bynum said, referring to the Southern Colleges Association. “We had a good bump in our graduation rate this year, but again we want to continue. We have to improve our first and second-year retention rate.”
Academically, the university has gone from six colleges to five after dissolving the College of Public Service,
reassigning those academic programs and creating the new College of Health Sciences (pending board approval). The change Bynum acknowledged began under the leadership of Dr. Rod Paige, who served as interim president before his tenure. “It’s something that we, again, think makes sense in terms of synergy,” he explained.
The P3 Project
Bynum then shared planned improvements for the university’s F.D. Music Hall and the John A. Peoples’ building using Title III dollars and $6.7 million appropriated from the Legislature to improve campus systems.
“We continue to have issues with chillers, the A.C. going out, roofs, and different things. So we need to take care of some of these basic needs on campus before we try and build something new. We have to make sure we are taking care of our infrastructure,” he said.
The president also instructed listeners to get used to hearing the term P3 project, which stands for public-private partnership. “Most of you know that on behalf of the university, the JSU Development Foundation owns 25 plus acres that sits between here and downtown Jackson,” he said.
Bynum announced intentions to develop the property with the hopes of creating residences to house the anticipated increase in student population due to the reduction of the out-of-state fee, now $500 a semester down from $11,228 per year.
Renovations of Stewart Resident Hall is also in the works, said Bynum, adding another 175-190 beds.
“That (out-of-state) fee (reduction) has generated a lot of excitement, and our alumni associations are ready to help us get the word out and market that particular feature,” he explained.
Thomas Hudson, assistant to the president, has been designated the lead on the P3 project. Bynum disclosed that the university would be putting out a request for proposals regarding the property this fall. “We’re looking for, if possible, an additional 1,200 beds. Most likely, those 1,200 beds won’t be built at one time. It’s private funding, so I don’t want a lot of empty rooms sitting that we have to pay for, so you’ll probably see a two- or three-phase project, so we’re excited about that,” said the president.
Bringing his address to a close, Bynum pressed the remote in his hand, and a slide of Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose Driven Life” appeared on the screen.
“You’ve heard me talk about the fact that I’m getting older. As I get older, I begin to think differently. I’m starting to think about what my legacy will be. What will people remember about William Bynum?” asked the father of six. “What I want them to remember most about William Bynum is that he fulfilled his calling. He fulfilled his purpose in life.”
Bynum revealed that since being in higher education, he has never had a problem getting out of bed for 29 years. “So I know I’m exactly where I need to be. When I was in K-12, I had a problem getting out of bed. That wasn’t where I was supposed to be,” he said, laughing.
The Rocky Mount, North Carolina, native also shared that he has never had a bad day. He admitted to his faculty and staff that a lot happens when working with teenagers and young adults.
“Sometimes, tragic things happen. I’ve had 37 student deaths since I’ve been involved in higher education. A lot of those times, I was the one that had to talk to the student body and the family,” he said referring to his time as VP of student affairs and the dean of students at places like Lincoln University, Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College.
But even when tragedy strikes, Bynum said, “I know I’m where the good Lord wants me to be.”
The president then listed his two favorite days of the year as new student orientation and commencement, which are not about him, further confirmed that he is walking in his purpose.
Speaking with palpable sincerity, he shared that looking in the eyes of first-year students and seeing their hopes, dreams and aspirations make him grateful to God for allowing him to be a vessel that helps students accomplish their higher education goals.
He then imparted sage advice to his faculty and staff: “I’m simply saying, it’s no mistake that you’re here at this particular time. What you have to determine is whether you’re here for a reason, season or a lifetime. That’s what you have to figure out.”