Chancellor Dan Jones to Institute Executive Director: “Your job is to make me nervous”

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This article appeared in the Spring 2014 Wellspring, the Institute’s newsletter. (Link downloads PDF file.)

In 2011, the Mississippi Economic Development Council was developing a fledgling project called “Blueprint Mississippi,” an effort to position Mississippi for “greater competitiveness in education, economic development, business climate, and image.” Dr. Susan M. Glisson, Winter Institute executive director, agreed to shepherd the elements of Blueprint that dealt with race. When the project was nearing completion, Dr. Glisson attended a reception in Jackson, Miss., the state capital. There she encountered Dr. Dan Jones, University of Mississippi chancellor.

“He asked how I was doing,” Dr. Glisson recalls. She responded that she was OK, but that being surrounded by Mississippi’s economic prime movers wasn’t her customary social milieu, as the Institute’s work typically occurred in community meetings and with youths all over the state. Some of the positions the Winter Institute had taken in advocating for communities had likely offended some of the very people in the room. “So I told Dr. Jones that I was worried that, in keeping with the Winter Institute’s mission, my presence would make him nervous.”

Dr. Jones took over as chancellor in 2009, arriving in Oxford after overseeing the University of Mississippi Medical Center, in Jackson, for six years. He showed a deft, proactive touch in matters of difference. He quickly requested that the University’s band director change its performance of “From Dixie with Love” so as not to accommodate “the South will rise again,” a refrain, offensive to many, that some students chanted at its conclusion. In protest, the Ku Klux Klan came to campus and rallied on a November Saturday that coincided with a home game against LSU.

Chancellor Jones joined in an anti-protest demonstration that far outnumbered the Klansmen (and which notably included both UM and LSU students), establishing a precedent of placing himself between bigoted groups and students. Two years later, at the Blueprint Mississippi party in Jackson, Dr. Jones’s response to Dr. Glisson’s concern over making him nervous was: “Your job is to make me nervous.”Thus began an unprecedentedly strong link between the Lyceum and the Winter Institute. It’s hard to fall on the wrong side of a KKK protest, but it’s entirely different, as a relatively new chancellor, to stand alongside the Institute, potentially in opposition to the very business leaders whose dollars support, at different levels and from different angles, the University he guides.

“Dr. Jones was, and is,” Dr. Glisson says, “committed enough to the Winter Institute’s work to put himself in that difficult position.”Late on Nov. 6, 2012, after President Obama’s reelection was official, the University, itself only weeks beyond celebrating 50 years of integration, came under scrutiny when a group of students burned an Obama sign on campus. The gesture prompted a confrontation, with students shouting at one another and others capturing photos and videos of the event. Social media amplified the incident and it immediately drew national attention.

In the wake of this debacle, Chancellor Jones intervened more systematically and comprehensively—that is, in such a way as to transform the culture of the University. He formed an Incident Review Committee to explore the University climate that had sparked the confrontation. The report that grew out of his leadership has produced culture-changing practices that have been implemented already, including the reimagining of the University orientation experience.

The Ole Miss Experience, companion text for the freshman EDHE 105 class, now contains two chapters, written by Winter Institute staff, that include the University’s unique racial history, warts and all. Similar information, along with training in how to discuss this history with students, is conveyed to all new staff and administrators in their own orientation sessions (designed and run by Dr. Jennifer Stollman, Institute academic director).

Chancellor Jones often mentions the “special obligation” that everyone shares to be honest and positive in race relations, and to continue the sometimes difficult conversations about difference-based discrimination.Chancellor Jones is a native Mississippian; having grown up during a time when many well-meaning people didn’t speak up in matters of race, directly addressing such issues is tellingly important to him. He cites Dr. King’s remark:  “Not only will we have to repent for the sins of bad people; but we also will have to repent for the appalling silence of good people.”

Last summer, Chancellor Jones and Dr. Glisson were both invited to the Initiatives of Change conference, in Caux, Switzerland. Each describes the trip as transformative. Dr. Glisson explains:  “We both learned from effective conflict transformation practitioners around the globe. But I think what really was most striking, and what it always is important for us to remember, is that the story of Mississippi changing is a powerful one that resonates around the globe.”

Since returning from Caux, she notes, “Chancellor Jones is the one who has challenged us to think more broadly about the work in terms of other kinds of conflict, in thinking beyond Mississippi’s borders. We raise all of our own money, always have, and one of the first things funders ask us is what support we receive from the University. Before, we had to work to make that case. Now they can see Dan Jones’s immediate responses to crises, the proactive interventions, and the very visible support he gives to us in the form of introductions and friend-raising events.”William Winter, the Institute’s namesake, writes: “The incredibly strong support that the Winter Institute has had from Chancellor Dan Jones has been a major factor in the Institute’s recent successes. His endorsement of and personal participation in advancing the work of the Institute have sent an unmistakable signal to the Ole Miss community, our state, and the country as a whole of the vital importance of racial reconciliation.”With Chancellor Jones, these gestures don’t stem from an obligation. There is a commitment to progress that resonates deeply: “He has an intellectual curiosity about this work and is always seeking greater effectiveness—not only for the Winter Institute,” Dr. Glisson points out, “but himself. That is the very definition of symbiosis at a university.”

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