This time last year, Dr. William B. Bynum was only three months into his new job as President of Jackson State University — and working to win over students and alumni who weren’t sure he was the right fit.
Some were concerned that Bynum isn’t a Mississippi native or even a Jackson State alum. Others were leery of why he would leave his previous post as President of Mississippi Valley State University, a rival HBCU.
In fact, JSU alumni had even lobbied for a different candidate in an open letter to the selection committee. “Any other decision would be a dishonor to the process and a disservice to Jackson State University,” wrote then-JSU alumni President Yolanda Owens.
“There will always be people who say I’m not their choice. And that’s fine,” Bynum told The New Tri-State Defender. “But I can assure you that the vast majority of students, faculty, staff and alumni are very happy with the direction I’m leading the university.”
For evidence, Bynum points to the beginning of this academic year last month. More than 500 students packed out a campus auditorium to learn how they could become JSU student ambassadors who help with recruiting. As for how alumni feel now . . .
“For the first time in many, many, many, MANY years, Jackson State alums gave more than $1 million last year,” Bynum said. “We consider it another positive, clear signal that we’re doing the right things. The fact is that we’re putting students first and foremost.
“As I tell people, that’s one thing that we will be forever uncompromising about.,” Bynum said. “As long as I’m president, first and foremost, we’ll be one of the most student-centered universities in the country.”
However, Bynum acknowledges that the education landscape for HBCUs has shifted. Before desegregation, HBCUs didn’t have to compete with predominantly white institutions (PWIs) for African Americans who wanted to go to college.
Furthermore, with alumni dollars and NCAA television contracts spraying PWIs with cash, many are building the facilities and amenities that today’s college recruits are looking for, Bynum said.
“We’re in a facilities arms race,” Bynum said. “We, as colleges and universities, are trying to build the nicest, the prettiest campuses to attract a millennial generation of students who have grown up used to having nice things.”
That’s just fuel to Bynum’s competitive fire, however.
“For me, competition brings out the best in you,” said Bynum, who attended Davidson College on a football scholarship. “We need to talk about our value proposition: That we provide a great nurturing environment, that we provide role models that students won’t find on other campuses.
“There’s a perception that HBCUs are somehow ‘less than’ predominantly white institutions,” Bynum said. “But we have to go through accreditation, just like Ole Miss and Mississippi State. And when you look at what our graduates are doing after graduation, many are doing as good or better than some black graduates of white institutions. We just have to sell our value proposition.”
There’s also a perception that alumni of HBCUs don’t give back to their alma maters at the same level as PWI alums. “It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison,” Bynum said. “In many cases, alumni from those schools have generations of people who have attended, built wealth and passed it down. It’s just a horrible comparison.”
That said, Bynum does want to develop a culture of giving among JSU alums – a habit that he hopes will balloon that $1 million in alumni gifts to $5 million or more.
“We want to say, ‘Hey, 25 to 40 percent of Ole Miss alumni give back; why can’t 25 to 40 percent of JSU alums give back?’” he said. “It’s not so much about the amount as it is about the habit of giving on a continual basis. Over time, as people grow in their careers and income, of course we hope the amount will grow.”
That includes giving to the athletics program too.
“I’m always reminding people that at HBCUs, student athletes graduate at a 30 percent higher rate than non-student athletes,” he said. “An investment in our athletic program is an investment in our graduation rate.”
Bynum’s weekend schedule is packed with SHC activities – from a college fair and parade, to various alumni mixers and concerts. And of course, there’s an actual football game on Saturday. Bynum, who has also led athletics departments at other institutions, declined to predict a winner for the Classic. But with new offensive coordinator Hal Mumme on staff, he does predict fireworks when JSU is on offense.
“We’re happy with our new offense,” he said. “We know it’s going to be quite a different look that what people have seen from us in past years. We’re talking about a wide-open offense, throwing the football 50-60 times a game.
“Hopefully,” he concluded, “we’ll sharpen some things up and be ready to go Saturday.”