JACKSON — A proposal to merge Mississippi’s three historically black universities apparently has been getting a behind-the-scenes push from an unexpected proponent: Jackson State University president Ronald Mason Jr.
Mason has been talking to state lawmakers about a proposal that would create one university out of Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State.
Gov. Haley Barbour has recommended the schools merge to save the state money.
Mason, JSU president since Feb. 1, 2000, publicly spoke against the proposal. But his 34-page presentation obtained by The Clarion-Ledger suggests creating another university — dubbed Jacobs State University — is a better alternative than letting “financially weak ASU, MVSU, JSU become weaker” in the state’s budget crisis.
The presentation notes historic inequities in the university system, calling the historically black schools the “poorest institutions of higher learning in the poorest state in America.”
“HBCUs rescued many but were designed and historically underfunded as part of Mississippi’s efforts to minimize the human potential of black people,” the presentation states. “Mississippi and its African-American citizens will create and support a new institution of higher learning primarily devoted to the specific purpose of restoring the human potential of black people.”
Mason said Tuesday that the presentation — which is detailed and includes a proposal to make the new school’s mascot the Phoenix — was not intended to be made public.
“It was a series of one-on-one conversations,” he said. “It’s just an idea.”
Several House lawmakers, including Universities and Colleges Committee Chairman Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs, have vowed to block any merger, while Senate bills 2701 and 2710 propose administrative mergers.
Mason said he was “picking brains” and looking for ways to “help the HBCUs survive” in his meetings with officials.
Because of the state budget crisis, the three HBCUs could see millions drained from their budgets by 2012, according to the state College Board. (2 of 2)
The state budget is expected to be about $400 million below expectations this fiscal year. And officials say the next two years will be worse.
Still, Sen. Alice Harden, D-Jackson, said she was “shocked and appalled” by Mason’s proposal.
“This is his plan,” she said. “He would want you to think this is the only game in town.”
Though the proposal calls for leaving the three campuses open, she said she fears cutting the number of universities eventually would decrease opportunities for students.
“We need to be talking about more money for education, not fewer institutions,” she said. “All of the schools serve very specific purposes.”
Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, said he heard Mason make the proposal. But Hines — a Valley State alum — does not support consolidation.
“(Mason)’s met with a lot of people and we’ve listened, but I’ve not heard of anyone who has been swayed,” he said. “Personally, I am surprised by any suggestion other than funding our universities at a higher level.”
Attempts to reach MVSU President Donna Oliver on Tuesday were not successful.
Alcorn State President George Ross said he was not aware of efforts to try to get the universities on board for a merger.
Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds, who supervises the presidents, had no comment Tuesday.
Barbour spokesman Dan Turner said he had not seen the proposal but said creative solutions will be needed during the budget crisis. Barbour’s idea to merge the HBCUs was announced when he presented his proposed state budget in November. He has since faced criticism.
“The size of the budget gap forced us to look at a lot of different ways to save money,” Turner said.
Barbour’s idea is to merge Alcorn and Valley State into JSU and fold Mississippi University for Women into Mississippi State. He has estimated a savings of $35 million.
In an interview last month on NPR’s Tell Me More, Mason said his main concerns were about the forced nature and financial motive of Barbour’s proposal.
“We can talk about working together in order to produce a better educational product, but the notion of merging is, first of all, politically unfeasible, and secondly, not well thought out,” he said on air. “I think there’s a lot of ways that (the HBCUs) can come together and work together and still preserve the traditions and histories of the three institutions.”
Mason also said he did not know what the effects a merger would have on the Ayers desegregation settlement.
The $503 million Ayers settlement is intended to address the state’s historic underfunding of HBCUs.