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Business leaders aggravated by failure to expand USM

In 1998 a major study conducted for the Mississippi Legislature concluded that the Coast wasn’t adequately being served regarding opportunities for higher education. The study recommended that the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Park be expanded to provide the state’s second most populous area — and the state’s fastest-growing area — access to a four-year college.

The Mississippi Legislature agreed with the study recommendations. The expansion was approved, and some initial funding was provided.

But the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges disagreed, and has blocked the expansion of USM on the Coast stating that the law gives the community college board the authority to authorize any freshman and sophomore courses offered in the area. The community college board has said the USM classes would be a duplication of effort, and hence inefficient.

Currently the issue is before the Mississippi Supreme Court as the State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) has appealed a lower court ruling that supported the position of the junior colleges.

Coast business and legislative leaders are frustrated by the stalemate.

“We believe the IHL board has the constitutional right to provide this opportunity on the Gulf Coast,” said Gene Warr, chairman of the business group Coast 21. “And we are really hopeful and optimistic that the State Supreme Court will see this need. There are many people who want a four-year university experience, and this will be the least expensive way for them to have that. A four-year university for the Coast is easily 30 years past due, and we cannot afford the educational blight that we have to accept in this part of the state. It has been proven beyond any doubt that this will not hurt the community college system whatsoever. We in the business community are strong supporters of the community college system in our state. It is wonderful. But they are two different animals. And we need the opportunity for both.”

Warr said many people who want to attend college have jobs and families on the Coast. And he argued that this is an economical expansion because it is an opportunity for the State of Mississippi to educate students at the most economic price per capita because USM Gulf Park doesn’t provide athletic opportunities, dorms or separate presidents.

“It would have to be the most economical way to educate an individual of any university in our state,” Warr said. “There is a need for all those people who are work bound and don’t have the time or opportunity to leave their job and drive upstate to have the university experience without having to leave home. And that is really the bottom line: that we deserve and should have that right and opportunity for a four-year college for our metropolitan area of some 500,000 people.”

Pamela Myers Smith, spokesperson for the Mississippi College Board, said it is clear the educational needs of people on the Coast aren’t getting met.

“Money has been appropriated for this effort by the Legislature,” Smiths aid. “Meanwhile, we are not making much progress in providing additional baccalaureate and graduate programs, which was the need identified by a study done by College Board of New York, commissioned by the Legislature in 1998.”

Smith said it is hoped that the decision of the Supreme Court will come before the Legislature meets again in early 2002. At any rate, that means there will be no expansion of USM Gulf Coast through the next school year, 2001-2002.

Both sides deny that this is a “turf battle” between the junior and senior college boards.

“We don’t see it as a turf battle,” Smith said. “We see it as providing the programs that are very much needed on the Coast in a way that is efficient and effective. You’ll hear from the other side that they think we are duplicating efforts in our approach. We don’t. I’m going to be very candid. The responsibility of the board is to provide baccalaureate and graduate programs. In the board’s view, their proposal to meet the needs of the Coast is effective and efficient, and it is being held up. The Coast is the fastest- growing area in the state, and the needs of adults in particular, working and raising a family, were not being met when this study by the College Board of New York was done, and we have no reason to believe it is any different now.

“USM has done a few things to make some additional programs available, but it is certainly not on the scale of what the board has proposed. That’s why I am confident that the needs of the people for education have not been met.”

Dr. Olon E. Ray, executive director, State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, also said this isn’t a turf battle.

“In my opinion it is everything but a turf battle,” Ray said. “It is a very important battle that is being waged to prevent the creation of a ninth university and perhaps a 10th, 11th and 12th university and who knows where it would end? If I were part of the university system, employed by them, I would be just as concerned about the negative effect on universities as I would on community colleges. Mississippi simply doesn’t have the money to support eight universities as well as they should. I see nowhere in the future that a ninth university is affordable if we want to deal with quality education.”

Ray said they agree with the business community on the Coast that there is a need for additional higher educational services. What they disagree about is how to go about it. Ray said in many progressive areas of fast growth across the country there is a trend towards the creation of university centers where existing institutions of higher education are brought together and share common staff members, and common grounds. Ray said that approach is more efficient than duplicating programs, personnel and buildings.

“We have a chance to do it right this time, and make it work better for the Coast, and work better for the state, all at the same time,” Ray said. “I think if we want to see Mississippi’s business climate improved, we need more and better education. But it certainly doesn’t suggest that we need to duplicate and waste funds.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

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