State budget problems, higher ed funding cuts spark exodus

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Published: October 21,2002

Mississippi, quite simply, is a seeing a bleeding of intellectual capital. Frustrated by continuing budget cuts and average salaries that are the lowest in the country, some of the best and brightest university professors and researchers are leaving for greener pastures elsewhere.

In the past three years the number of resignations and retirements at state universities have increased 167.1%. In fiscal 2000, 430 professors left compared to an average of 150 per year before the state’s budget problems began.

“There is no question that three straight years of declining state support and three years without salary increases prior to this year have taken their toll, particularly among bright young faculty members and researchers who are still deciding whether to invest their long-term futures in our state and our universities,” said Dr. J. Charles Lee, interim president of Mississippi State University. “Within our Computational Simulation and Design Center (SimCenter), for example, which is one of five components of the Engineering Research Center (ERC) at MSU, we lost two faculty members and six young research engineers this summer to another state. They left primarily because of uncertainty about Mississippi’s level of commitment to the future of programs such as the SimCenter and the ERC.”

Lee said many people have worked long and hard, and the university and the state have invested heavily in building some excellent programs that are now bringing enormous benefits to Mississippi.

“It would be tragic if we allowed this period of austerity to undermine what has been accomplished at such effort and cost,” Lee said. “The past three years have been painful and have slowed our progress, but we’ve managed to keep moving ahead, maintaining quality and protecting essential services and functions with the help of some very talented and dedicated faculty and staff. Now we have to be able to offer them some reason for optimism about the future. We simply can’t afford not to.”

The University of Southern Mississippi has also lost prominent researchers such as Dr. Allan Guymon, who was honored last year as one of 60 top young scientists nationwide at a White House reception hosted by President Bush. Guymon, who had been at USM for four years and had received a $3-million polymer research grant, was hired away by Iowa State this past summer. USM had invested about $500,000 in equipment to support Guymon’s research.

Dr. Tom Layzell, commissioner of higher education for the Institutions of Higher Learning, said the state is particularly vulnerable to lose people like Guymon who are mobile, and may have not developed strong ties to the state. After receiving the Iowa State offer, USM President Shelby Thames offered an increased salary to keep Guymon. But Guymon was ready to leave the state.

“We understand the man is turned off about our state, and a lot of people are getting that way,” Layzell said. “Unfortunately, we have lost our competitive edge in terms of recruiting faculty to our state in all of our areas, but most certainly in the high demand fields like engineering, business and computer science.”

Salaries aren’t the only problem. Budget cuts are also preventing university presidents from filling 156 positions vacated in the past fiscal year. That puts more burden on the faculty that is left. Classes are larger, and professors may have to teach more classes. At the same time, budgets for travel and other expenses are bare bones. This all happens at the same time that enrollment has been up every year for the past seven, increasing 5.1% in the just the past three years.

“We have larger classes this year because of the budget cuts,” Layzell said. “We have fewer sections, and it is hitting people who are in specialized fields like architecture at MSU. Students are saying they can’t get classes they planned on getting, so it is taking another year to graduate.”

Currently the state’s universities are expected to lose at least $48 million that was appropriated last year as a budget contingency fund. That represents 8.5% of the budget. The universities had already lost $100 million in earlier budget cuts.

“We are not blaming the Legislature,” Layzell said. “We recognize that we are still in a difficult financial situation and that it’s likely to continue. But we have to tell the story because it really affects the future of Mississippi. Something needs to be done so we can have stable revenue source for education. If there is anything that Mississippi needs, it is education.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

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