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For Bynum, focus on students is critical to JSU future

The 2018 Southern Heritage Classic will go down as one of the most memorable ever. There were no winners. No losers. Just rain. LOTS of rain. Thunder and lightning too. So much so that SHC officials finally decided the stormy weather was too dangerous to play the game.

Eventually, canceling the game wasn’t a difficult call at all, said Jackson State University President Dr. William B.  Bynum Jr.. But that doesn’t mean it was easy either.

“As a former student-athlete, a former football player, as a former coach, you know, you want to play the game,” Bynum said. “Obviously you practice, you prepare and the young men are ready to go. We wanted to try to get the game in. We were constantly checking. We thought initially that we had a clear window, but then the weather changed. At the end of the day, you’ve got to make the decision about what’s safe for student-athletes.”

It’s the same type of thinking that’s driving Bynum, now in his third year at JSU. In a state where high school graduation rates are declining and college-bound students are being recruited like never before, JSU has taken the bold step of reducing its out-of-state tuition by more than $10,000. Now, out-of-state tuition is within $500 of JSU’s in-state tuition.

“That paid some dividends for us,” Bynum said of how the shift has affected enrollment. “But because we announced it in late spring, we know it didn’t pay the dividends we’ll see next fall.”

In addition, Bynum said JSU is increasing its online course offerings and expanding its enrollment there.

“So we’re excited about getting out there,” he continued. “We haven’t gotten a full recruitment season, a full recruitment year to promote that much lower cost and we’re confident that people will take advantage of that and that enrollment will continue to grow over the next few years.”

Moves like those are just part of JSU’s recently unveiled strategic plan. According to Bynum’s page on JSU’s website, the “Three Pillars of University Success” include student-centeredness; teamwork and collegiality; and the pursuit of excellence/raising the bar. Faculty and staff were involved in crafting the plan, Bynum said.

“Early on, I wanted to make sure that we had a plan that was specific to the Jackson State University culture. That’s why it took us a year to look and feel and better understand this institution,” he said.

Under those pillars of success are five goals:

Goal 1: Students first and foremost

“As I’ve said before, the No. 1 goal is the students first and foremost, making sure students receive a return on their investment,” Bynum said.

Goal 2: Academic research and prominence

“The No. 2 goal is academic and research preeminence – making sure that we continue to be not only a Carnegie-classified high research institution, but we continue to grow that status as well,” Bynum said.

Goal 3: Athletic prowess

“Our No. 3 goal is athletic prowess, a return to the glory days and years,” Bynum said. “We know how important athletics is to this institution because of its history and legacy. So we really want to put some emphasis and focus on getting back to those glory days.”

Goal 4: Campus aesthetics and sustainability

“Goal 4 is about making sure we keep up the physical environment, that it continues to stay beautiful and that we can stay competitive,” he said.

Goal 5: Changing the culture, defining “Tiger Pride” and embracing status as community pillar.

“This is about making sure we define exactly what true ‘Tiger pride’ is, so that we know,” Bynum said. “So that when we say ‘Tiger pride’ we know exactly what that means and that supporting it means giving some of your time, your talent, and of course your treasure.”

Like every other HBCU, JSU is seeking ways to turn its challenges into selling points. JSU’s current enrollment is about 6,000, Bynum said. That typically translates into smaller classes and more individual attention from faculty for students. Fundamentally, Bynum believes if he wows his students, they’ll spread the word.

“Students are your best recruiters,” he said. “So for me, it’s about treating your current students the way they deserve to be treated. “One of the things HBCUs were always known for was that nurturing caring environment. And what I’m asking our faculty staff to do, to really make sure that we’re reaching out to students and treating them the way they deserve to be treated.

“And if we do that, they’re gonna talk about their experience at Jackson State University – that it’s like no other,” he said. “As long as that good word of mouth is out there amongst our students, I’m confident we’re gonna be able to compete and grow.”

As for Saturday’s game against TSU? As a former college player and coach himself, he has a unique perspective on his team. He noted that in the season opener against Bethune-Cookman University, JSU’s offense showed some life. “That was encouraging, to see that after two years of little or no offense, we’re going to be able to move the ball this year,” Bynum said.

Is there a part of him that ever wants to put on the headset again, maybe offer a suggestion to JSU Head Coach John Hendrick? Bynum laughs out loud at the notion.

“No, no. Long ago, I got over that tendency. No one ever has to worry about this president calling a play from the press box,” Bynum chuckled. “I think we’ve hired the right people for the right job, so I’m going to let them do their thing.”

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