Recession or not, history rules state’s universities

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 11, 2009

Mississippi has one state-supported medical school, one state-supported law school, one state-supported college of veterinary medicine.

State residents seeking professional degrees in those fields either go to the single source the state provides or go out-of-state or to private institutions.

That’s not true for other academic fields. There are up to eight main campuses in Mississippi where students can earn doctorates in English or mathematics or education administration or history. The eight also overlap greatly in the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees they offer.

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In an era of pinching pennies, how much sense does that make?

The honest answer is not a lot.

But higher education in this state — and in many other states — plays out against the backdrop of history, specifically racial history, so the university system will continue to be less efficient than if it were being designed from scratch today.

Merely hinting at the need to consolidate to save money gives rise to suspicion that the motive is to get rid of smaller universities such as Mississippi Valley State University at Itta Bena and Alcorn State University at Lorman, both of which were created to maintain racial segregation and have since evolved to the point that their racial identity has become a special, protected status. Despite court orders and financial incentives to diversify, Valley and Alcorn continue to have nearly all-black enrollment.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail

Same for the smallest school in the state, Mississippi University for Women, created when it was stylish to have a university enclave where women could be gender-independent. Although excluding men was deemed illegal 27 years ago, The W remains in fact and by reputation a women’s college with a few men in the student body.

Each university, small and large, has a protective constituency of alumni and supporters.

“I’m not for consolidating if it’s going to take away from Valley,” state Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville, told Shelia Byrd of The Associated Press. See? The first question is not whether it makes financial sense to streamline. Tradition is the trump card. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just the way it is.

Members of the state College Board have authority to set the missions of the state’s eight comprehensive universities. In tight times past and again today, noises have been made about reducing duplication. “Visiting experts” are talking about a better way. But College Board members don’t have rocking the boat, at least in any radical way, on their agenda.

By the numbers, the national recession has pushed up both community college and university enrollment. The university preliminary total is 73,699 students, up 3.5 percent. The largest gain in percentage terms was Jackson State, up 4.9 percent. The largest university remains Mississippi State, with 18,601 enrolled in its programs, followed closely by the University of Mississippi which, with its Jackson medical programs included, enrolls 18,345.

The only schools showing declines were both in the northwest part of the state — Valley was down 110 students or 3.8 percent and Delta State University was down 33 students or .8 percent.

Together, Alcorn, Valley and Jackson State, often lumped together in the press as HBCUs (historically black state universities), accounted for 20 percent of this fall’s total enrollment.

If streamlining talks did become serious, a key aspect would be to realize how widely the taxpayers’ investment ranges course to course, degree to degree. Tuition pays only part of the cost of educating a potential classroom teacher, but it pays a far smaller part of educating a medical doctor. Across the board, the most expensive classes are those at higher levels. They have smaller numbers of students, are often taught by tenured faculty and often involve equipment that costs millions of dollars. This is where the most savings could be achieved by eliminating duplication.

So it would make sense to have all universities continue to offer the most common majors — education, business, social work — and have them specialize more at the graduate level. But Ole Miss isn’t about to cede its master’s in engineering to State. Alcorn isn’t about to cede its doctorate in secondary education administration to the University of Southern Mississippi. And so forth.

A comment often made about the national economic recession is that it’s the worst since the Great Depression in the last century. That means universities are on the cusp of several years where their state allocations and even alumni donations may be the leanest in 80 years. Already, state funds for higher education have been trimmed and Commissioner of Higher Education Hank Bounds has challenged university presidents to come up with more ways to accomplish their mission with less money.

They’ll have to do it without consolidation. Unless things get a lot worse, it’s still a non-starter.