BILOXI — “I told you so,” is the reaction by Coast business leaders to the announcement that Tulane University is interested in establishing a branch campus in the Biloxi-Gulfport area. Business leaders said Tulane’s interest shows what they have said all along: There is an unmet demand for higher education on the rapidly growing Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“It shows people outside of our community can see the glaring need for a continuous seamless university experience,” said Gene Warr, president of the business group Coast 21. “It really shines a bright light on the fact that we aren’t already up and going at USM (the University of Southern Mississippi) because we have been held back. It has been a detriment. It is a crying shame when major universities from out of state have to come in and prop up our educational system in the state of Mississippi.”
Warr said the plus side of Tulane’s announcement is that it shows the great need that is there and the breadth of the void.
“We have been saying all along if USM Gulf Park didn’t get to expand that some outside institution was going to come in and do it,” said Chevis Swetman, chairman of People’s Bank and president of the Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce. “And it looks like that is what is happening. It goes back to what we were saying is that this area has been so underserved for a tremendously long period of time.”
Tulane plans to open a University College campus branch on the Coast in the fall of 2002 to offer working adults and others the opportunity to earn a Tulane degree at reduced tuition rates. Tulane’s University College offers degree, certificate and non-credit programs.
“This will give the residents of the Gulf Coast the chance to get an education from an institution that is consistently ranked among the top 50 universities in the country,” said University College Dean Richard Marksbury.
Although he would prefer USM to expand, Swetman said Tulane coming into the market is also good.
“Let’s make education more competitive and go where the real need is not being met,” Swetman said. “I’m a very strong advocate of USM, but I’d like to see the USM expansion happen in my lifetime. If the needs are not being met by the junior college system, it needs to go to USM Gulf Park. If USM can’t do it, it needs to go to Tulane. We are demanding better higher education on the Coast, and it needs to be a free market.”
Tulane’s announcement came just a week before the issue of USM’s Gulf Park expansion went before the Mississippi Supreme Court. The expansion of USM to offer lower division courses has been opposed by the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, which has argued that the freshman and sophomore classes would be an unnecessary and costly duplication of services provided by the community colleges.
Olon Ray, executive director of the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, said he doesn’t think Tulane’s announcement had anything to do with the case before the Supreme Court.
“I think it is a very interesting proposition,” Ray said. “Tulane’s proximity to the Coast and its excellent reputation certainly makes it interesting enough to give serious consideration to. I think their interest in coming certainly should be a sign that perhaps higher education programs can be expanded on the Coast to offer people more options.”
Ray is also one of the four members of the Mississippi Commission on College Accreditation, the group that would have to give Tulane accreditation in order to proceed with a Gulf Coast campus.
He said there is a possibility that Tulane could bring different and diverse programs to the Gulf Coast than what are currently being offered.
“The fact that they are private means it won’t cost taxpayers,” Ray said. “I think that strengthens their case. I’m open to any proposal that will benefit the Coast.”
Coast business leaders said they prefer the expansion of USM over an out-of-state university coming into the market. Warr said USM would be more competitive, cost wise, and there would be the pride of participating in a Mississippi university.
“I don’t believe that Tulane will be a deterrent to our market,” Warr said. “If our Legislature, the courts and community college system don’t allow us to have a full university of our own, frankly we would have no choice but to get behind some alternate opportunity. Our concern is having our people educated. I’m not totally surprised at Tulane’s interest. The need is here and the market is right.”
Warr said the Coast is losing a lot of students to both Tulane, other New Orleans’ universities and the University of South Alabama in Mobile. He said the Coast wants the opportunity to educate people here in Mississippi.
“Then they have a tendency to stay in the area than if they get their education out of state somewhere,” Warr said. “We’re exporting our educated minds, is what we are doing.”
Dr. Jim Williams, vice president for the USM Gulf Park campus, said it is difficult to predict how Tulane’s offerings might affect USM.
“Based on what I’ve read, they would be offering general curriculum courses, typically lower level classes of the type we don’t teach, pending the court decision whether we can teach lower course work,” Williams said. “In the event we did begin teaching freshman and sophomore work, it is possible students could choose to go either place. Typically you have public education and private education operating in the same area, and that is not typically thought to be duplication of programs.”
Williams said the proposal is to deliver programs from Tulane’s University College, which is a college that is set up specifically to deliver programs away from the main campus, sometimes in a non-traditional format.
“According to what I read, they would be appealing mostly to working students,” he said. “We have many working students on our campus, as well. I think they plan to teach their courses late afternoons and evenings. We teach courses more throughout the day, although a lot of ours are in the evenings. Frankly, I’m not surprised that Tulane is looking here because this is a population center that would indicate there is a substantial need for higher education programs here. Of course, if you go back to 1997-1998 study done by the College Board of New York, that study indicates there is a need for expanded higher education services here.”
Tulane wouldn’t be restricted by the Legislature from teaching gaming courses. Mississippi law prevents state colleges and universities from teaching courses that are specifically designed for casino employees.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com or (228) 872-3457.