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As public funding erodes, universities change

When I enrolled in college, the environment was very popular and there were about 1,000 kids on a natural resources degree track at Utah State University. The first day of class in Natural Resources 101, the dean said only three graduates got jobs the previous year — and most of them were probably picking up trash at a park.

I switched my major to journalism.

Because I feel a four-year degree is too expensive not to have a firm career path, I have followed the current debate about the University of Southern Mississippi becoming an alleged “entrepreneur university” with great interest.
Some have protested that USM “is being taken over by business interests.” A recent letter to the editor in The Sun Herald by Michael J. Fitzgerald questioned private meetings being hosted by Southern Miss to decide the future of the university.

“How can a secret meeting of non-academics decide ‘the future of USM?” Fitzgerald wrote. “Apparently this ‘meeting’ is an administration- and Republican-backed plot to turn USM into a technical institute.”

Higher ed: producing jobs and economic prosperity

While Dr. Shelby Thames, who built a solid research career on the campus in Hattiesburg before assuming the role of president, has been — in my opinion — somewhat heavy-handed with his management style, and the current problems with accreditation are of great concern, is an attempt to remake Southern Miss into a more business-focused university really a bad idea?

Can we afford — especially here in Mississippi with the lowest per capita income in the U.S. — to not consider making higher education more focused on producing jobs and economic prosperity? I found some fascinating insights into what people elsewhere are saying about more business-focused higher education in the latest edition of UtahState magazine.

The cover story, “Publicly owned, privately financed. Higher ed in transition,” quotes former Utah State University president Kermit L. Hall as saying, “Universities like Utah State began as state funded. Then they became state assisted. Today, many of them are merely state located. To become better public universities, they have no choice but to act more like private universities.”

Hall also said, “We want our graduates to create jobs, not merely go to jobs.”

Hybrid public-private enterprises

Utah State president Stan Albrecht said that the biggest transformation of higher education in his lifetime is public research universities like Utah State evolving into a hybrid public-private enterprise. “In the not too distant future, universities will function like the bridges and canals of the 19th Century,” Albrecht said. “They will be privately owned but operated in the public interest.”

Hybrid means that as the state retreats from its commitment to higher education, the financial responsibilities will fall increasingly on students (in higher tuition and fees), alumni and friends (through gifts) and business people (in the form of partnerships).

Other quotes from article: “After two decades of declining public support for higher education, the social compact that ushered in an era of unparalleled educational attainment and prosperity appears to have dissolved. …higher education seems now more like a luxury than a societal responsibility.”

There are some interesting parallels between Mississippi and Utah. Both states are conservative, and rank in the bottom five in the country in lowest per capita spending per pupil.
And Utah State has also undergone the kind of streamlining that has been done under the Thames administration. All seven colleges at Utah State have been restructured and programs redesigned to become more efficient, effective and relevant.

At Utah State there is an increasing focus on “integrating classroom assignments with economic trends and immersing students in the interdisciplinary teamwork that will be a minimum survival skill in a complex, multicultural, constantly changing global economy.”

The difference seems to be that there is far less controversy and more buy-in of the mission of remaking Utah State than Southern Miss.

Another letter writer from Hattiesburg, Gene D. Saucier, says, “USM does not need more bad publicity. The administration needs to stay focused on solving what appears to be a major obstacle to remaining an accredited institution. If, after this problem is solved, the university wants to change its mission statement, let it take up the matter in a professional manner by professionals.”

Another point of view

I asked an academic friend what the “professionals” are saying about this issue.

“In higher education, we attempt to transmit a broad base of knowledge to the students, giving them the tools that they will need to be leaders in society,” he said. “To do that, we include the liberal arts in all curricula, including the highly technical ones. If we abandon this approach, as we are being driven to do, we become a vocational /technical school rather than an institution of ‘higher’ education. Sure, there is a place for vo-tech schools, those that train students to do a job, but higher ed is about training leaders. You won’t see the really good schools following this approach; they will continue to produce well-rounded and balanced students, those who have an appreciation for a broad range of topics but who specialize in a few.”

‘What to do?’

This professor sees two major problems looming for Southern Miss. First, the quality of education is below most standards and therefore USM will have difficulty competing with private schools as USM’s tuition continues to rise at a rate higher than private colleges. Second, as tuition rises, low-income students will be priced out.

“What to do?” he asks. “In my opinion, universities need to have the same level of autonomy as private schools do so that they can determine their own future and decide how best to utilize their own resources. That way, we could focus on our strengths and build programs that are in demand and, consequently, those that make money. And this is pretty much what Thames is trying to do, with one big exception. The Thames approach seems to be eliminating the broad range of topics and focusing more on the vo-tech style curricula.

“If the faculty were to be involved, we would retain the broad educational requirements that the ‘good’ schools use to ensure that our students are equipped to meet a broader range of challenges and opportunities. It’s a tough situation no matter how you look at it and I neither resent nor envy Thames; he’s in a very, very, very tough spot.”

Ocean Springs-based freelance journalist Becky Gillette writes regularly for the Mississippi Business Journal. Her e-mail address is bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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