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College Board to ‘take action’ at troubled Mississippi Valley

Mississippi’s Commissioner of Higher Education plans to take action with Mississippi Valley State University, the only state-funded university to show a dramatic decrease in enrollment, while high numbers of job seekers are heading back to class in the down economy.

MVSU enrollment has taken a 12.6 percent nose dive, according to preliminary numbers released this week by the state College Board. Student numbers at most other state schools have increased significantly.

Commissioner Hank Bounds said MVSU had actually projected a fall enrollment increase of 2.5 percent for this fall. Adding the numbers together, that’s more than a 15 percent “hole,” he said.

Bounds said a team at the College Board is reviewing MVSU financials, and he hopes to have all the information by “early next week.”

“We have to build a recommendation for moving forward – we have to take quick, significant action,” Bounds said, although he said he could not elaborate on what type of action he might take.

School mergers debate

Bounds said he does expect more conversation about consolidating MVSU, but does not believe anything will happen: “I don’t believe the political will exists,” he said.

Any proposals for merging universities would have to be confirmed by the state Legislature.

Bounds mentioned the failed attempt to enact a name change for Mississippi University for Women (MUW) during last legislative session. If lawmakers wouldn’t take up a name change, he doubts they would debate consolidating, much less closing, MUW.

When announcing budget recommendations last fall, Gov. Haley Barbour said the state should consider merging some of its universities.

Barbour said Valley should be merged, along with Alcorn State University, into Jackson State University. That consolidation would create only one historically black university for the state. MUW should merge with nearby Mississippi State University, Barbour also said.

The Democratic chairman of the House Universities and Colleges Committee, Rep. Kelvin Buck of Holly Springs, opposed the governor’s proposal, telling the Associated Press that Mississippi would hurt its own economic future by limiting higher education.

Since 2000, the state Legislature has allocated $44.488 million in bonds for facilities and infrastructure improvements at Valley.

The MVSU view

In an interview MVSU president Dr. Donna Oliver said the decline in enrollment is not as dramatic as it seems. The university’s registration period had not concluded when IHL took its count early this month, and since then, Valley’s numbers have gone up. Actual enrollment is currently at approximately 2,600 students, and they are still counting, Oliver said.

The 2,600 figure could not be verified by the College Board at press time. A head count of 2,600 would mean MVSU’s enrollment is only down by 8.8 percent, which is still a substantial decline as compared to the other state schools.

Oliver said they are in the process of analyzing why enrollment is down, and another reason for the decline may be the fact that Valley shortened its drop/add period for classes this year, moving the cut-off date prior to Labor Day.

“I think when you begin to change standards at a university, you are putting those things in place that ensure quality, it sort of shocks the community. We decided our drop add period would not be as long as it was in the past,” Oliver said.

The College Board could not comment on how drop/add figures might affect university enrollment, as universities drop/add dates vary by institution.

Oliver said an additional reason for the drop in enrollment could be that many students are experiencing financial difficulties, having not caught up on outstanding bills from prior semesters.

But Valley does have a strategic plan in place to bolster recruitment and has hired new staff to help with the process, Oliver said, and “We are very confident that we can turn this enrollment around. It won’t happen overnight.”

Prestigious program lost

Oliver said MVSU’s very dynamic, diverse and caring faculty is a main reason for students to attend the university.

Additionally, Oliver touts Valley’s bioinformatics program and environmental health program — two majors that are not offered anywhere else in the state.

Unfortunately, another Valley program that was unique to Mississippi – a recording industry major that involved the campus’s prestigious B.B. King recording studio — has recently been dissolved. Interesting, though, is the fact that the major was never really a major, at least not as far as accreditation agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), was concerned.

Although the College Board approved the major in 2004, Oliver’s administration found that MVSU officials never sent in proper paperwork to finalize the program with SACS. For years, students participated in the program until 2009, when it was suspended.

According to attorney Hiram Eastland III, one former recording industry student is currently suing Valley and the College Board in Leflore County County Court for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation. The student is upset that he has incurred student loans for classes that he says will not transfer to another institution.

College Board spokesperson Caron Blanton said, “Currently, new programs do not go forward for Board approval if action from SACS is pending.  This is the current practice; however, (the recording industry) program was approved in 2004, and the process may have been different at that time.”

Blanton said the recording industry “situation at Valley” is the only such instance of which IHL is aware in the state university system.

Oliver said her administration is working on properly establishing the recording industry major at Valley for the future.

Sports issues

Due to decrepit facilities, MVSU has recently taken a hit to a valuable student recruitment tool – its sports program.

MVSU home football games for this season have been moved off campus because its stadium has been declared unsafe. The university is also in danger of losing some home basketball games due to a leaking gym roof which has ruined the court floor.

Valley’s football woes come on the heels of celebrating the induction of MVSU alumnus Jerry Rice, history’s most prolific NFL wide receiver, into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August.

Oliver said MVSU is in the process of getting bids and will demolish the stadium. “The plan is to have games back in our stadium next fall,” she said.

Valley is also opening the bidding process for replacing the gym floor and getting a new floor. The leaky roof has been patched for years and can be patched no more, Oliver said. Although fall practices will have to be held off campus, “We are hopeful we will be able to start our SWAC basketball games in January in our gym,” she said.

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