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University Merger Plan

‘I’m not the first person who ever thought of combining the W with Mississippi State’

Barbour’s plan to reduce state universities to 5 meets expected challenges

During Gov. Haley Barbour’s press conference last week in which he unveiled his budget recommendation for fiscal year 2011 a reporter asked him how he came to the conclusion that merging some of the state’s universities would be good financial policy.

“I’m not the first person who ever thought of combining the W with Mississippi State,” Barbour said, alluding to prior efforts to fold the Mississippi University for Women into Mississippi State University. Indeed, this isn’t the first time the W has been targeted for merger or closure.

With school president Dr. Claudia Limbert retiring next June, Barbour said this, combined with the lack of state money, was “a providentially good time” for the W to become a part of MSU. The schools’ campuses are 20 miles apart.

Under Barbour’s budget plan, Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University would merge into Jackson State University, turning the three historically black universities into one big one. Barbour’s explanation for that decision produced one of the more unusual moments in his hour-long question-and-answer session with reporters.

“The merger of the three historically black universities was recommended to me by the education community,” he said. “I think the genesis of it was consolidating their administrative side.”

Barbour did not offer any details as to which members of the educational community pitched the idea of the Alcorn/Valley/JSU merger.

The presidents of Alcorn and Valley issued press releases shortly after Barbour’s that were more notable for what they did not say than for what they did.

Valley President Dr. Donna Oliver said her school had created an 18-member Renaissance Efficiency and Innovation Committee that was examining ways for the MVSU to achieve cost savings. Some of the committee’s recommendations, Oliver said in her statement, included the restructuring, reallocation and outsourcing of academic, non-academic and support units. Oliver did not issue a direct rebuttal to Barbour’s call to merge Valley into JSU.

“We are hopeful that an examination of institutional mergers in state higher education will not only be made in terms of cost/benefit analysis, but also what effect an action of that sort would have on our state’s educational and public service mission to the citizens of our state, and especially those citizens in the Mississippi Delta who make up some 80 percent of our student population,” read the last part of Oliver’s statement.

Alcorn President Dr. George Ross’ release, similar in tone to Oliver’s, said ASU was doing its best to increase efficiency and decrease costs, and also lacked a direct rebuttal to Barbour’s assertion that it should merge into JSU.

“Alcorn will continue to collaborate with IHL and fellow institutions to make higher education a priority and to meet necessary budget deficiencies. Alcorn’s mission and capacity to provide life-long learning that contributes to a lasting foundation of economic prosperity is a commitment we will continue to deliver to every student. We will ensure that upon graduation Alcorn students will be ready to contribute to the betterment of Mississippi and the world,” Ross said.

Oliver and Ross’ reaction contrasted sharply with Limbert’s, who challenged Barbour to provide specific details on how the W becoming a branch of Mississippi State would save the state money.

“A merger would have a negative impact on the community, region as well as state,” Limbert said in a statement.

All three presidents had not responded to messages seeking further comment by the time the Mississippi Business Journal went to press last Thursday afternoon. Combined, Barbour said the mergers would save the state $35 million for the budget year that begins July 1, 2012.

The decision by Ross and Oliver not to immediately fire a shot across Barbour’s bow does not mean they will be willing partners in carrying out Barbour’s budget plan. Barbour admitted that merging the universities would take “a huge lobbying effort.”

One lawmaker who has already made it clear he is opposed to the effort is House Colleges and Universities Committee Chairman Rep. Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs.

“I would disagree with the governor or anyone who would suggest that closing universities or reducing access and opportunity to a variety of educational course options is the way to go,” he said. “While this may appear to some to be the answer, it is my view that this method would serve as only a short term approach and would do considerable damage to the state’s future long term economic viability.”

Barbour’s budget recommendation comes as the state is preparing for a revenue shortfall of $317 million for FY10, which started July 1. The deficit for FY11, which will start next July 1, will nearly double, to $715 million. Along with the university mergers, Barbour said the state needs to cut its number of public school districts (152) by a third. Barbour estimates that would save the state $65 million in FY12.

By his own admission, Barbour isn’t expecting the mergers and consolidations to save a huge amount of money immediately. 

The reforms are meant to be in effect by the time FY12 starts July 1, 2011. The revenue shortfall for that budget year, through a combination of lost stimulus money and sagging state revenue, is expected to reach over $1 billion.

Barbour made it clear that these mergers and consolidations must be executed in the upcoming legislative session, which starts in less than two months, so the cost-savings can be realized by FY12. There’s a political tint, too. The budget for FY12 will be written in the 2011 session, the last session before elections in Nov. 2011.

“My belief is the Legislature should bite the bullet this year, and prepare for 2012 as well as pass a responsible, balanced budget for 2011,” Barbour said. “That’s why some of the things like reducing the number of school districts by a third won’t save much money in 2011. But if we’re going to save money in 2012, we have to enact the law (next session).”

Merger and consolidation talk has historically been dead on arrival once it reaches the Capitol. The issue was given new life at the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual Hobnob last month, when Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, brought it up. Flaggs, a member of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, said last week he was going to spend the next month visiting the presidents of the affected universities before making a decision whether he would support Barbour’s plan. The JLBC’s budget recommendation is due Dec. 2, and will offer the first glimpse of how much opposition Barbour can expect once the session starts in January.

“The governor has presented a very bold budget that has a lot of merit and one that is a work in progress,” Flaggs said. “I’m open for discussion. We’re at a crossroads. We’ve got to make these tough decisions.”

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