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USM has no plans to return to Jackson County

GAUTIER — The University of Southern Mississippi does not have any immediate plans to return to the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s Gautier campus.

That has some Jackson County leaders wishing they could reverse last year’s rebuff to the University of South Alabama, The Hattiesburg American reports.

“As far I’m concerned we were misled,” said Jackson County District Five Supervisor John McKay.

He backed Southern Miss when school officials complained last year about an agreement that would give South Alabama free building space for a year at the campus, because he believed Southern Miss would eventually return.

University president Martha Saunders says that could happen — maybe next academic year.

“Right now, we’re out,” Saunders said. But she said she was talking last week with Mary Graham, the Gautier campus’s new president, about returning a pilot program there.

But, she added, “I don’t want to give promises that I don’t keep.”

Graham, installed July 1, said she hadn’t talked specifics with any universities about joining the campus. But she said she is interested in “creative ways” to accommodate four-year institutions at all of Gulf community campuses.

“As a new president, I do not believe that it is beneficial to discuss what might have been in regard to the university offerings in Jackson County,” Graham said.

McKay and other local officials believe Jackson County residents were hurt.

“We’re left holding the bag over here. That’s how I feel about it,” said Supervisor Manly Barton.

After 25 years in Gautier, Southern Miss moved classes to the Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs, citing declining enrollment and growing lease payments as major reasons. The move would save $200,000 a year, they said.

County officials say the lab is less accessible and courses fewer.

According to school data, enrollment fell 250 from fall 2004 to 2009. The number taking classes exclusively at Gautier declined from 174 in fall 2004 to 64 in fall in 2008 to 32 in fall 2009.

The college then made a three-year agreement in 2010 with South Alabama, located in Mobile. South Alabama would pay for renovations the first year and rent the following two.

State auditor Stacey Pickering and some other state officials said the rent agreement might be illegal.

“They feel like they were doing us a service, and all of a sudden they were attacked by everybody in the state,” Barton said.

Attorney General Jim Hood approved the agreement, but South Alabama pulled out, citing “unanticipated discord” in Mississippi.

Its position has not changed, said David Johnson, USA’s vice president for academic affairs. “If we see evidence that we’re welcome and there is no significant discord, then we are willing to look at returning,” he said.

Saunders said, “I just think it’s bad public policy to direct the resources from one state to another,” she explained. “The roads are built in Jackson County by the taxpayers of Mississippi.”

Johnson said his school would have offered engineering and several need-based programs such as computer science and business, and could have recruited engineering students to Mobile.

Students within 50 miles of the campus pay the Alabama resident tuition rate. Gautier is about 40 miles from Mobile.

“We would need to be convinced that there is a need in order to come back,” Johnson said.

For McKay, that need exists now.

“We backed Southern Mississippi, and in the process, backed South Alabama out of the picture,” McKay said. “We’re definitely open to South Alabama coming back if Southern (Miss) is not.

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