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Lawsuit blocks expansion of USM Gulf Coast

Coast business leaders push for higher education

In an April 25th hearing, Hinds County Chancery Court Judge William Singletary did not rule on a preliminary injunction but refused to drop a lawsuit filed by the State

Board for Community and Junior Colleges against the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) on Dec 22, 1999.

The privately-funded lawsuit was filed in order to block the expansion of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast campus. The State Board of Community

and Junior Colleges argued the expansion would duplicate programs on the Coast. A trial date has been set for Oct. 30, and regardless of the outcome, the

Mississippi Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.

Dr. Olon Ray, executive director of the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, believes an important state policy issue is at stake regarding the lawsuit.

“If the IHL is allowed to go forward with their decision, it transfers that decision making from the Legislature to a state-appointed board,” he said. “We feel like that

would be a mistake.”

Ray said existing institutions are already inadequately funded, and to add another institution would only compound the problem.

“It’s not a Coast issue, but a state issue,” Ray said. “It just happens that the action is on the Gulf Coast. Our position would be the same no matter where it (the

institution expansion) was. If they go through with this issue on the Coast, it will become a precedent that can be repeated any number of times throughout the state.”

Gulf Coast community colleges already offer 15 out of the 16 courses proposed by USM, according to Ray, who asked, “Why do we have to ask taxpayers to pay

for it twice?”

But Dr. Pam Smith, spokesperson for the Board of Trustees of IHL, said current offerings would not be duplicated.

“These are programs that are not offered there now,” she said, explaining that the course offerings were business administration, pre-law, etc.

There are currently locations in the state that have both community and four-year college campuses working together. In Tupelo, graduate and undergraduate courses

are offered in conjunction with Mississippi University for Women, Itawamba Community College and Ole Miss. The center, which opened recently, seems to be

working.

But, Smith said, there is a difference between the Tupelo center and the USM Gulf Coast expansion proposal.

“I think the basic difference is in Tupelo the partnership is one that was sustained by numerous educational entities, but we haven’t been able to put together a joint

proposal with our community college colleagues on the Coast. In fact, we’re at odds.”

Gulfport Mayor Bob Short believes it is important that USM expand its academic offerings on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

“I’ve always been a supporter of community colleges, but we’re the second-largest city in the state, and being the second-largest city in the state, we need the

opportunity for people to have the four-year college. We have so many new people here who don’t want to have to go to Hattiesburg or to a two-year community

college, and a lot of these people are now going out of state,” he said. “We’re going to continue to support the community colleges, but I would hope the community

colleges would also understand the need of a four-year college such as USM.”

Short said that regardless of whether or not USM Gulf Coast does expand its academic offerings, the community colleges will continue to be able to recruit a lot of

students.

But, he said, “It’s putting the new people moving in in a bad situation when they find the only opportunity they have is for community colleges for the freshmen.

“I just don’t think you can compare the four-year college to a two-year college when you’re trying to recruit new people to move into your area for educational

purposes. And I also feel if we don’t allow this in the very near future, you’ll see a school from Alabama or Louisiana that will move into our area.”

Short believes IHL made the right decision when it decided to back USM in its proposal for the expansion of academic offerings at USM Gulf Coast.

“The IHL board realizes the tremendous growth on the Coast and realizes we’re one area that does not have a public four-year college,” he said.

But Ray, although supportive of increasing higher education opportunities on the Coast, believes expanding academic offerings should be done in a way different than

what USM has proposed.

“We think it should be done a different way; a smarter and better way where we use the resources of the community colleges to support and supplement the resources

of our university” he said. “Working together we can create a better program that will deliver more of the needed degree programs, and we do it faster and more

economically.”

Ray believes the only way to do it right is by working cooperatively by using the combined resources of the community colleges and universities.

“The new center that was just opened at Tupelo is indicative of a better way to do this,” he said. “It brings Ole Miss, MUW and Itawamba Community College

together and a common commitment that offers more programs at a more cost-effective rate.”

Extensive talks about a model similar to the one in Tupelo have already taken place about USM Gulf Coast, Ray said.

“I hope we can continue to look at that as an option.”

Dave Dennis, president of Specialty Contractors & Associates Inc. in Gulfport and chairman of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce, issued a statement

regarding the Chamber’s position on the lawsuit.

“The Mississippi Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce has previously endorsed the expansion of USM on the Gulf Coast in Long Beach,” Dennis wrote. “The Chamber

felt very strongly that enhanced higher education which is readily accessible to students should be a common goal for all residents in Mississippi.”

Davis added that he did “not feel the Ayers case should derail the opportunities for a diverse group of potential USM students on the Gulf Coast.”

Coast 21, a private-sector community organization, has been a leading advocate for the expansion of courses at USM Gulf Coast. According to a statement released

Sept. 28 by Gene Warr, chairman of Coast 21, “there has been much misunderstanding and misleading rhetoric” surrounding the USM Gulf Coast debate with the

Mississippi Community College Board.

Coast 21 writes that “All of the stated arguments so far miss the point and fail to address the fundamental issue: South Mississippians simply do not have adequate

access to higher education.”

The two-page statement of Coast 21, submitted by Warr, identified four initial components in the plan initially approved by the IHL Board in January 1999 and again

in May 1999.

“First, there was the designation of the University of Southern Mississippi as a dual-campus university. In making this designation the Board relied on its constitutional

authority supported by the Attorney General’s opinion.

“Second, the Board approved the expansion in three parts.”

Those parts, according to Coast 21, were to strengthen existing programs at the junior, senior and graduate levels, add freshman and sophomore courses allowing

students to complete degree programs on one campus and under the USM administration and establi
sh a Uni
versity Center allowing any of the state’s universities to

offer programs on the Coast that are not in USM’s inventory of academic programs.

Coast 21 said “the expansion does not constitute

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