If one state senator has his way, Mississippi’s colleges will fly the state flag or their presidents will pay.
Senate Bill 2057, authored and filed by District 47 Sen. Mike Seymour (R-Vancleave), would require state-funded colleges and universities to fly the Mississippi flag. The bill includes strict punitive measures for institutions that don’t comply.
If an institution refuses to fly the state flag, even after a 30-day grace period, the bill authorizes the governor to tell the Mississippi Institution of Higher Learning Board of Trustees to cut the university or college president’s monthly salary by 25 percent. The bill also authorizes a 25-percent reduction for junior college presidents and public school district superintendents.
The salary cuts would remain in effect until the flag is flown.
No action has been taken on the bill.
None of Mississippi’s eight public universities fly the state flag, which bears the Confederate battle flag.
Delta State University — the last university to still fly the banner — took it down in November. The University of Mississippi was one of the first in the state to stop flying the flag. Mississippi State University and the Mississippi University for Women stopped flying the flag in the summer of 2016.
MSU President Mark Keenum and Ole Miss Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter make $600,000 each, with half of the money coming from state funding and the other half in private funding, according to IHL. MUW President Jim Borsig makes $245,000, with $215,000 coming from state funding and $30,000 from private funds.
MSU spokesman Sid Salter declined to comment on the legislation, as did Borsig.
Support, dissent for bill
Seymour told the Dispatch the people of Mississippi have decided the state’s current flag is the one that should fly. In a 2002 referendum, 65 percent of voters backed the state flag.
Current state law allows universities the choice of flying the state flag. Seymour’s proposed legislation would make it a requirement.
He said universities should comply with the will of the people, rather than using their influence to make statements.
“They’re basically using their position to make a political statement,” he said. “As far as a human being or citizen, you’ve got the right, like all of us do in the United States, of voicing our opinion. But to use that platform to go against the will of the people of the state — it ain’t right.”
On penalizing university presidents and other administrative heads for not flying the flag, Seymour said they stepped beyond their job descriptions.
“The final say comes through them,” he said. “I didn’t pay, and there is no citizen in the state that is paying for that service from them. That is not what we hired them to do.”
District 17 Sen. Chuck Younger (R-Columbus) said he understands Seymour’s desire for public institutions to fly the Mississippi flag. However, he said the bill may go too far in trying to force compliance.
“I wouldn’t say to penalize them, but I think they ought to have to fly it,” Younger said.
District 38 Rep. Tyrone Ellis (D-Starkville) expressed strong opposition to Seymour’s bill — a bill he called “ridiculous” and “a piece of garbage” — or any attempt to force universities to fly the flag.
“It’s totally inappropriate to introduce such a punitive piece of legislation as that nature,” Ellis said. “That is not the way you govern. If you have a problem with what they’re doing, you put it in the statute that you cannot remove the flag or something of that nature.”
Similar bill with no penalty
District 37 Rep. Gary Chism (R-Columbus) said state institutions should fly the flag, and he’s co-authoring a bill in the House of Representatives that requires they do so. Chism lamented that movements to stop flying the state flag often started with college senates, which he said are often full of “liberal” professors.
However, he said he doesn’t feel the punitive measures in Seymour’s bill are necessary.
“I don’t know that we’re to the point of getting somebody’s attention like that,” he said. “You give them the opportunity to do what the state law says. If it says to fly it, you need to be flying it.”
Chism also noted that university presidents have to approach the legislature with funding requests. He suggested that might be incentive enough to push them to follow a strengthened statutory requirement to display the flag, if passed.
“I don’t want to give them punishment until they have a law,” he said. “If we’ve got a statute that says fly it, you had best fly it. You’re going to come down here and get more money with honey than you are with vinegar.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.