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‘A friend in a high place’: Alcorn State interim president could be latest internal hire by IHL

Alcorn State Univerity’s interim president appears to have at least some campus support if he wants the full appointment.

But if Mississippi’s public university governing board forgoes a national search and appoints Tracy Cook, it will mark the ninth time in 10 years that it has hired an internal candidate as a top leader. 

One was a university president already. Some were acting or interim presidents when given the full appointment. Others had worked as commissioners within the Institutions of Higher Learning.

Tracy M. Cook is president f Alcorn State University. Credit: Courtesy of Alcorn State University

Cook, who was the vice president of student affairs when he was tapped as interim, did not respond to inquiries from Mississippi Today asking if he wants the job. But he has what it takes to bring life back to the waning campus, some students, faculty and alumni told members of the IHL Board of Trustees last week. 

“The student body was given a questionnaire, and it was highly expressed that we would like Dr. Cook as our next president,” said Jordan Buck, the student government association president. 


Some of IHL’s internal hires — like Nora Miller, who had served as Mississippi University for Women’s acting president, senior vice president for administration and chief financial officer before the board permanently appointed her the day of the listening sessions — have gone over without a hitch. But others have landed the board in hot water, sparking protests, accusations of favoritism and even bills to abolish IHL.

Just three presidents since 2014 have been hired from outside the state of Mississippi: Jeffrey Vitter at the University of Mississippi, Felecia Nave at Alcorn State and Daniel Ennis at Delta State University, who was appointed following a rare split vote. Nave, who IHL fired last year, was an Alcorn State alumnus. 

Either way, IHL makes an unusually high number of internal hires for a public university system, said Judith Wilde, a George Mason University professor who studies presidential searches. She added internal hires are more common at private universities where presidents are often appointed on the strength of their connections.

“Having a friend in a high place who can help you is good for the candidate,” Wilde said. “I don’t know that it’s always the best for the institution.” 

On the other hand, internal hires could mean that Mississippi’s universities are growing their own, which Bill Crawford, who served on the IHL board from 1992 to 2004, said is a sign of healthy institutions. He noted some of Mississippi’s most esteemed college presidents were internal hires, like Aubrey Lucas, who was president of Delta State before he led USM.

What makes the difference, Crawford said, is proper vetting. In Mississippi and across the country, university presidents are among the best-paid public officials

“What you’re trying to do as a board is find the best person, and whatever means you can use to come up with that is what you oughta use,” he said. 

John Sewell, IHL’s spokesperson, wrote in an email that the board’s goal is to find the right person for the position who can be prepared to lead on day one. 

“Decisions of the Board are always made in the best interest of the institution,” he wrote. 

IHL has not released a timeline for the Alcorn State search. At the listening sessions, Alfred Rankins, the commissioner and former Alcorn State president, said the board would decide what kind of search to conduct after hearing the community’s feedback. 

When trustees meet for IHL’s regular board meeting later this week, they could likely discuss how to proceed during the executive session. Typically following the listening sessions, the board hires a headhunting firm and convenes a search committee of students, faculty, staff and alumni. 

But even if IHL decides to conduct a national search, the board can change its mind. 

IHL is constitutionally empowered to hire the university presidents, and board policies give trustees the authority to cut a search short at any time. That’s what happened in 2022, when IHL suspended its search to hire USM’s interim president, Joe Paul, after he received support during the listening sessions. 

Paul’s appointment was largely applauded by faculty — including ones who had criticized IHL for empaneling a search committee with no rank-and-file faculty voices. 

But at Jackson State University, IHL’s decision to name its deputy commissioner, Marcus Thompson, as president last year despite conducting a full-fledged national search drew ire

At Alcorn State, Rankins, who was serving as deputy commissioner and had been acting president of Mississippi Valley State University, was an internal hire when he was appointed in 2014. 

The following year, Cook came to Alcorn State to be Rankins’ chief of staff. Till then, Cook, an alumnus and one of Alcorn State’s best-ever football players, had spent his career working in various administrative levels in Jefferson and Claiborne county schools. 

In 2018, Cook was promoted to interim vice president for student affairs, a position that came with a $20,000 pay bump. That same year, after Rankins became the IHL commissioner, Cook served on the advisory committee for IHL’s search for Rankins’ replacement. 

In 2019, Cook was named vice president of student affairs permanently. He also oversaw enrollment management. Total enrollment at Alcorn State has fallen from 3,523 in fall 2019 to 2,894 in fall 2023, according to IHL and federal data. 

Like Rankins, Cook is a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, which may have more college presidents than any historically Black fraternity in the nation. 


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