Merging college programs touchy topic

Published 12:20 am Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Not all Mississippi legislators are ready to embrace talk of consolidating academic programs at some of the state’s eight public universities.

The idea was broached at a recent state College Board meeting. For now, the board’s main focus is being more efficient with taxpayer dollars through purchasing, accounting and other administrative activities within the university system — changes forced by declining state revenue.

No one, however, has ruled out taking the cost-cutting to another level with academic consolidation. Policy decisions are left up to the College Board, but its appointed members are still concerned about push back.

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Senate Universities and Colleges Committee Chairman Doug Davis said given the tough economy, higher education officials should consider more creative ways to operate.

“I support any way that they can consolidate programs that would assist in saving money and at the same time not compromise the quality of education that the universities have produced,” said Davis, R-Hernando.

Sen. Alice Harden, who is a former chair of the Universities and Colleges Committee, said the impact could be significant at the state’s smaller schools. Mississippi University for Women, Mississippi Valley State University and Alcorn State University all have student populations under 4,000.

Consolidation talk also is too reminiscent of discussions held during Mississippi’s long-running college desegregation case, said Harden, D-Jackson.

Jake Ayers Sr. filed a lawsuit in 1975, accusing the state of maintaining a segregated college system by giving more financial support to predominantly white schools and neglecting the historically black institutions.

A settlement was reached nearly three decades later, but the negotiations included proposals to consolidate programs at Delta State in Cleveland and Mississippi Valley State in Itta Bena, located less than 100 miles apart.

Harden said she even recalled talk of making Alcorn State in Lorman a branch of Mississippi State University in Starkville because they were both land-grant schools.

“I can tell you consolidation was a big portion of what was talked about during Ayers. We decided there is a place for all of the eight state-supported schools,” Harden said. “What I would not want us to do is limit to a great extent the curriculum at these institutions to force students to go to a larger school.”

The consolidation discussions under Ayers led to an outcry from faculty, staff and supporters of the universities involved. The same will likely come as academic consolidation moves forward.

“I’m not for consolidating if it’s going to take away from Valley,” said Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville, who represents portions of the Delta region.

Bailey said higher education officials should consider ways to expand the historically black university by creating a school of nursing to address the state and national shortage of medical workers.

“That’s one of the reasons that students are making choices for other schools, because Valley doesn’t offer those programs,” Bailey said.

House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said he wasn’t ready to comment on academic consolidation.

“I have to see the proposals first,” Stringer said.

College Board members said they’re expecting resistance from lawmakers, university faculty and staff and others.

Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said consolidation is how the board has to deal with the reality of the economy.

Bounds predicted the system’s state funding could be reduced by as much as 10 percent. He said by the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2011, the level of funding could drop by 20 percent when the federal stimulus runs out.

“There are some things out there that we probably should address anyway. A downturn in revenue forces us to do that,” Bounds said at this month’s meeting. “Unfortunately, academics are going to be impacted.”