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USM, facing budget woes, looks for researcher

HATTIESBURG — The University of Southern Mississippi’s fiscal crisis — with its threat of triple-digit faculty cuts in fiscal year 2012 — has grave implications for its external funding operation, as well.

“You are going to run into a capacity problem — you will not have the (number of) faculty to sustain your research operation,” said Cecil Burge, vice president for Research and Economic Development.

Very soon, the problem will be off Burge’s hands. He retires at the end of June after 40 years with the school, including six in his current position.

The third of three candidates to replace him visited the Hattiesburg campus March 2. Timothy Phillips, a senior faculty fellow in the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, gave a PowerPoint presentation of his background and goals to a group of students and faculty in the Polymer Science Auditorium.

Previous candidates to visit were A. Gordon Emslie, associate vice president for research and dean of the graduate college at Oklahoma State University, and Denis Wiesenburg, dean of the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

“Our new VPR has to be somebody that will go out and be able to sell this university and direct people within the university to the right areas of research to attract the funding,” said Bret Calhoun, assistant director of the School of Polymer Science and who attended the presentations.

During Burge’s tenure, the amount of external funding shot up from $69 million in FY05 to $102 million in FY07, before tapering off to $91 million last year.

Burge and Calhoun said the three candidates are well-qualified to take the reins, but both added that challenges lie ahead.

“We can probably sustain $75 million a year competitively,” Burge said.

Burge said the university can cope with a “capacity problem” by using research dollars to fund professors — outside of the regular E&G (educational and general) budget — whose primary function is to do research. That strategy requires a balancing act, however.

“You don’t want your professors to be too far removed from the academic side,” he said.

There’s also the question of where those research dollars are going to come from. Calhoun said state research funding is tough to come by these days.

“Dollars are tight,” said Calhoun. “We’ve got eight universities funded by the state competing for those dollars. When we’re trying to work with the Mississippi Development Authority or DOT (Mississippi Department of Transportation), there’s only so much money going around these days.”

Burge agrees the state picture is “bleak,” but said the university is well-positioned to work with private corporations for grant money. He added that the federal picture is promising.

“(President) Obama has shown he is committed to the National Science Foundation. He’s shown he’s heavily committed to energy as well,” said Burge.

Long-term, Burge said his successor will need to be creative in building “consortiums” with other institutions from other states to obtain these federal dollars. That’s because the Mississippi’s prime legislative position can’t last forever, he said.


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