President’s corner: Is Marcus Thompson the perfect leader to restore JSU’s reputation?

"I felt very connected walking into this role," Jackson State University President Marcus Thompson says. "I felt like I had been here all along on the first day I set foot on campus as president."

Last November, Jackson State University, a cultural anchor point in the most populous city in Mississippi, appointed Marcus Thompson as its next president. It’s a joyous occasion to serve one of the nation’s premier HBCUs. But the first-time president also just so happened to be walking into a position that’s been a revolving door for more than a decade due to financial mismanagement, faculty no-confidence votes and scandals.

While some leaders might feel tremendous pressure after so much trouble, Thompson feels confident, cool and collected.

“I’m motivated to be the best servant leader I can be, knowing that the stakes are high and that many people and all of our stakeholders are depending on me,” he says.

The city of Jackson and JSU are Thompson’s old stomping grounds. He went to elementary school here and got his haircuts right on the edge of the university’s campus. As a professional, he’s taught in the surrounding K12 system and worked as an adjunct professor for JSU, where he also earned his doctorate. Moreover, his father-in-law is an alumnus of the historic HBCU.

“I felt very connected walking into this role,” he says. “I felt like I had been here all along on the first day I set foot on campus as president.”

With how deeply embedded he is in the university’s culture, he feels as though he is the parent to all his students. Here lies the motivation that supersedes any pressure other leaders might have experienced walking into this role.

Amid Jackson’s continuing water crisis and JSU’s passion to reach new heights as a STEM university, Thompson wants everyone to know he’s here for the long haul. “These issues not only impact the students, they impact my family as well.”

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Learning from those before him

Thompson has support from the institution, his family, and the overall community, but perhaps the most important trait he possesses is relevant experience. Before his appointment, he served as the deputy commissioner and chief administrative officer of the Mississippi Institutions for Higher Learning (IHL), the state’s public university system. For over a decade, Thompson managed the system’s day-to-day operations based on the reports he received from leaders across IHL’s Board of Trustees, the Commissioner’s Office, and the state’s eight public universities.

An unassuming man, Thompson has quietly been able to absorb the leadership styles of many of the college and university presidents with whom he has worked. He describes his disposition as “watchful and observing,” which he used to analyze every leader’s etiquette and conduct. One particular leader he’s had the pleasure of working with at IHL was Van Gillespie, whom Thompson appreciates for his work ethic, attention to detail and flexibility. Thompson has since appointed Gillespie as chief of staff.

“We have to be willing to adapt to meet the current needs of our students because our students constantly evolve and change,” Thompson says. “For me, it’s about people who cannot only deal with technical issues but also adaptive issues.”

However, not all leaders Thompson has worked with are as effective as Gillespie. “I saw many successes [at IHL], and I was able to see many of the things that I could use in my leadership strategy,” he says. “But over those years, I also saw things I would not use.”

Listen to Thompson describe a fatal flaw he once observed from a higher education leader who worked under him:

No need to reinvent the wheel on JSU’s strategic plan

While there’s work to be done to establish a long-term culture and identity built on trust and familial values at JSU, not everything needs to be overhauled. The five-year strategic plan set in place in 2021 by former President Thomas Hudson provides some great goals to move toward, Thompson concedes. One such goal includes becoming the first HBCU to reach R1 research status.

“I think it is an ambitious goal, but it’s attainable because that’s what we already do here.”

A university can’t reach such a feat without help. Thompson has been busy reestablishing JSU’s brand with businesses, alumni and college applicants and recruiting top talent to back that brand up. Among the six appointments he made last month to his cabinet and senior leadership was ConSandra McNeil, interim vice president of research and economic development. He is also fortifying connections with surrounding employers to ensure JSU’s graduates are a primary source for internships and job opportunities.

I’m seeking long-term partnerships with our businesses so that we can have a mutually beneficial relationship moving forward,” he said. “We are an economic development driver for this city. As Jackson State does well, the city of Jackson does well and vice versa.”

Additionally, Thomson has been busy establishing stronger ties to alumni and K12 schools to ensure a strong pipeline of donations and top high school talent. Motivated students guided by talented leaders, plus enough money to retain personnel and furnish classrooms with modern lab equipment, create a fine recipe for collaborative research and innovation.

Student pride in JSU’s future

Thompson has a lot planned to drive JSU back into its position as a premier HBCU, and he can leverage one powerful asset to showcase its brand on a national scale: JSU’s marching band, the Sonic Boom of the South, which played alongside Usher at this year’s Super Bowl halftime show.

Listen to why Thompson believed the band’s performance rose above mere spectacle:

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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