Universities ‘struggling’ with financial cuts

Published 11:29 am Tuesday, January 24, 2017

By Ashley F.G. Norwood

Mississippi Today

Three leaders of higher education in Mississippi warned legislators that continued declines in state funding could cause serious damage to public universities.

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Mark Keenum, president of Mississippi State University, and William LaForge, president of Delta State University, joined Dr. Glenn Boyce, commissioner of the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Institutions of  Higher Learning, at the Senate appropriations subcommittee meeting Monday.

“State funding is crucial in keeping the lights on,” LaForge said.

Between fiscal years 2010 and 2017, state general fund appropriations have increased 17.3 percent. In that same time, state university funding has decreased 4.5 percent and the IHL system general funds decreased 7.1 percent.

“Last week, prior to the IHL meeting, university heads met and for the first time we recognized a period of anxiety,” said LaForge.

Delta State, like many other regional schools, are “struggling to produce graduates with less resources,” says LaForge.

University officials request an “adequate level of base funding.”

“The budget is tough, but we will do all we can in correlation to the researchers, faculty and students that you are graduating that make our state better,” said Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, vice chairman of the appropriations committee.

LaForge mentioned the challenges of new initiatives such as Complete 2 Compete, which will help former students return to the classroom to complete their college degrees. As introduced at an Institutes of Higher Learning meeting in Jackson, Complete 2 Compete could facilitate 200,000-plus Mississippians receiving college degrees.

This and similar programs will increase the number of graduates at Mississippi’s public universities, LaForge said. Last year, 17,102 degrees were awarded at the state’s eight public universities. That is a 7.7 percent increase in degrees conferred during the past five years.

“Faculty retention is the biggest challenge at MSU,” Keenum said.

Full professors who have earned tenure and been employed at the university for at least 12 years are moving on to other universities in the state and the nation, he said.

Keenum named Auburn University and the University of Alabama, rivals in athletics, as also competing to win over MSU faculty with their higher salary offers.

LaForge added that recruiting faculty has been an issue because of HB 1523, the “religious freedom” law passed by the Legislature last session. It subsequently was struck down by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, but Gov. Phil Bryant has appealed that ruling.

Last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that prohibits state agencies and the state legislature from requiring its employees to travel to a state that discriminates against LGBT people. Mississippi and North Carolina are among the states mentioned by the law’s proponents. Likewise, the state won’t pay for any travel to such a state.

California is the first to pass a standing law as such, though several other governors and mayors have imposed similar travel restrictions through executive order.

For that reason, many people did not come here to study or work at Mississippi’s public institutions, LaForge said.

“I don’t really give a rip about what California says,” responded Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp. “Our universities nor our legislation needs to abandon its principles to conform to what California thinks.”