The slumping economy has made this perhaps one of the most difficult years ever in the annals of higher education in Mississippi.
Nearly every size and type of public institution has been affected in some way by the lingering financial crisis. Aside from finances, consolidation proposals and personnel comings and goings also dominated the headlines in 2009 for Mississippi’s public universities.
Perhaps the biggest story of the year in higher education concerned budget cuts.
In September, Institutions of Higher Learning commissioner Hank Bounds presented a budget to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee that totaled $841.5 million, which was about $200 million less than the budget the IHL had originally planned to present. The first budget, said Bounds, would have brought funding for Mississippi’s colleges and universities up to the Southeastern average.
Bounds also proposed to committee members that some functions such as purchasing, the contract 403(b) notification requirement administration and the IRS 125 administration, be consolidated in a nod to the state’s dwindling tax revenue.
“We can’t afford to wake up three or four years from now and have mediocre programs,” Bounds was quoted in the Sept. 28 edition of the Mississippi Business Journal. “We have to think differently and recognize that if all (economic) prognosticators are accurate, we could see some really tough days ahead.”
In November, first-year University of Mississippi chancellor Dan Jones said that tuition increases for the state’s eight public universities were imminent.
“I know that no one likes to hear conversation about any increased cost to families, but modestly increasing tuition will be a necessary part of the solution for to the other side of this recession,” said Jones, quoted in the MBJ’s Nov. 9 edition.
Jones asserted that the higher education system, which lost five percent of its funding when Gov. Haley Barbour trimmed $172 million of mostly education money from the state budget in September, could not make up the difference simply by delaying facility renovations and repairs and the purchasing of new equipment.
Gov. Barbour’s proposal for a major restructuring of the state’s education system highlighted the Journal’s Nov. 17 edition.
Barbour said that Mississippi’s public school districts should be reduced from 152 to 100 in an effort to save $65 million in fiscal year 2012 but the biggest news was his budget plan to consolidate several state universities.
The proposals came on the heels of the JLBC meeting in which lawmakers learned revenue in fiscal year 2011 would come in a whopping $715 million under appropriations for FY10.
The plan proposes that the Mississippi University for Women merge with Mississippi State University, and for Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University merge with Jackson State. In each instance, the campuses of the schools eliminated would remain open, but carry a new name. Barbour estimated the moves would save the state $35 million in FY12.
“These are major changes for a significant new direction,” said the governor.
Comings and goings of key university personnel also made major news in 2010. But probably the biggest was the appointment of the 41-year-old Bounds as the state’s commissioner of higher education.
In the June 19 edition, Bounds’ success as the state’s superintendent of education was cited as the reason for his appointment.
Mississippi Economic Council president Blake Wilson, who worked closely with Bounds on several initiatives that tied education into the business community, praised the former Petal High School teacher.
“He’s got a perfect style to get everybody running in the same direction,” said Wilson.
Two university presidents left their posts in 2009, with one retiring and the other leaving the state.
In October, MUW president Dr. Claudia Limbert announced her retirement effective at the end of June 2010.
After serving Alcorn State University for less than two years, university president Dr. George E. Ross informed the IHL and ASU community earlier this month that he was resigning to become president at Central Michigan University, where he will assume his new position in March 2010.
On the enrollment front, there were some positives in 2009.
In the Sept. 14 Mississippi Business Journal, the IHL released figures showing an increase of nearly 2,500 students enrolled in the state’s public universities, with six of the state’s eight universities showing increases.
Bounds, who had been serving as the state’s superintendent of education was replaced by dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi Dr. Tom Burnham. Burnham replaced Dr. John W. Jordan, who was serving as interim state superintendent of education.
A native of Puckett, Burnham has served as Mississippi Superintendent of Education from 1992 until 1997. Other positions held include superintendent of Henderson County Public Schools (North Carolina), superintendent of Biloxi School District, executive director of the Gulf Coast Education Initiative Consortium and adjunct associate professor at the University of Southern Mississippi.
He holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Delta State University as well as a bachelor’s degree in business administration and master’s in educational leadership from Mississippi College.
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