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With merger issues aside, college president search can begin

It did not take long for the whole college merger issue to die — at least for now. A major legislative deadline came and went without action by the Mississippi Legislature last week.

This clears the way for the search to begin for new presidents at Mississippi University for Women (MUW) and Alcorn State University, replacing Dr. Claudia Limbert and Dr. George Ross, respectively. However, there is a good chance that the merger issue, a pet project of Gov. Haley Barbour, will reemerge next year. Since both MUW and Alcorn are two of the three schools discussed for consolidation (the other is Mississippi Valley State University), how hard will it be to find candidates who would be interested in what, in essence, could be a lame duck position?

College Board president Scott Ross said, “The Board has not determined a timeline for presidential searches at Alcorn or MUW. Both universities are in the care of good leaders, and right now, our attention is focused on the budget shortfalls we are facing.

“This is not the first time the Legislature has discussed mergers, and it will certainly not be the last. The Board has always managed to find capable leaders during times of transition at the universities. Conversations about mergers and closures complicate the situation, but at the appropriate time, I am confident we will be able to find presidents who will move Alcorn and MUW forward.”

Leaders will need to get moving if they want new presidents installed anytime soon. The selection process encompasses 21 steps  — from the naming of the members and chairperson of the search committee to the announcement of a new president or a continuation of the search.

Leah Rupp Smith, director of communications at the State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL), said there is no way to determine how long a search might take. It took five months to find a replacement for former University of Mississippi chancellor Dr. Robert Khayat in 2009.

If the merger issue does reemerge, backers are going to have to find more help. Merging MUW with Mississippi State University and Alcorn and Mississippi Valley with Jackson State University, which is what Barbour wants, never generated much support. In late January, Scott Ross said there was no talk of college mergers because the measure did not have the backing in the Mississippi Legislature. He called it “dead on arrival.” This proved to be true.

Last week, lawmakers failed to move on the issue before the deadline for committees to bills filed in each chamber. Senate Universities Committee chairman Doug David told The Associated Press that “legislators weren’t convinced that combining universities is a good idea now.”

But, there was some collateral damage done before the measure died that could further complicate the search for new presidents at MUW and Alcorn. Just before the bills died in the Mississippi Legislature, a merger plan formulated by Jackson State president Ronald Mason was leaked. The detailed plan called for one historically black university to be called Jacobs State University.

Mason, who had publicly opposed the mergers, was forced to defend himself. He maintains his plan has merit, and that his report was never intended to be made public.

Currently, the situation seems settled at Alcorn. Last December, Dr. George Ross announced he was stepping down as president of Alcorn to return to Central Michigan University as that institution’s 14th president. He had only been president since Jan. 2008, so it came as a surprise. His last day was Feb 5.

On Feb. 1, the Board of Trustees of the State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) voted unanimously to appoint former Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) president Dr. Norris Edney to serve as interim president of Alcorn. Edney brings familiarity and continuity — he has held multiple positions at Alcorn including dean of Graduate Studies, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and chairman of the Department of Biology. He served as president of the SWCA, of which Alcorn is a member, from 1979-1984.

The situation at MUW is markedly different compared to Alcorn. Limbert is wrapping up a memorable, sometimes tumultuous, run as MUW president that began in 2002. A devastating tornado, a bitter, public feud with elements of the university’s alumni and a controversial proposed name-change are just a few of the issues that came the MUW’s way during Limbert’s tenure.

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