By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — More than 200 supporters of Mississippi’s historically black universities packed a Capitol committee room Thursday, all hoping for answers about what the future holds for the schools in these tough economic times.
Dozens of students and alumni filled rows of wooden chairs and stood in aisles and along walls. After a nearly two-hour budget presentation by Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds, Democratic Sen. Alice Harden of Jackson finally asked the question the crowd wanted to hear: What is the College Board’s position on Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposal to merge Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State universities into Jackson State University?
“Go on now,” one man called from the audience.
“There has been no conversation about that particular subject,” Bounds answered. “Our focus has been on building business models for eight institutions to weather the storm.”
As College Board president Scott Ross stepped to the microphone, some spectators leaned forward in their chairs.
“Based on private conversations that we’ve had with members of the Legislature as well as many public comments that we’ve seen by members of the Legislature, we have assumed that the merger idea is dead on arrival in this Capitol, and there is no reason for us to discuss it,” Ross said. “And we haven’t.
Ross’ comments prompted murmurs of approval from spectators, including some who wore shirts, scarves or jackets with school colors — green and red for Valley, purple and gold for Alcorn State, and blue and white for Jackson State.
Some, including Valley President Donna Oliver, said after the meeting that they were satisfied the three historically black universities will survive.
“I heard exactly what I wanted to hear. We’re very, very happy,” Oliver said.
Vanessa Taylor, Valley’s area coordinator for housing, didn’t share the optimism. Taylor said despite Ross’ statements, she believes state officials are quietly looking for ways to merge the schools.
“If they’re talking about merging, people we’re trying to recruit are like, ‘If they’re going to merge, I might as well go to another school,'” Taylor said. “That hurts enrollment.”
When Barbour unveiled his state budget proposal in November, he proposed merging the three historically black universities into one, but keeping all three campuses open. He also proposed merging Mississippi University for Women into nearby Mississippi State University.
House Universities and Colleges Committee Chairman Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs, has been saying since November that he will block any university mergers.
However, Senate Universities and Colleges Committee Chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando, has filed bills this year that would merge Valley and Alcorn State into Jackson State. The bills say the Valley campus in Itta Bena and the Alcorn State campus in Lorman would remain open, but administrative functions would move to Jackson.
Those proposals are making some students and alumni nervous — and so is a 34-page proposal penned by Jackson State President Ronald Mason Jr. In it, he discusses merging the three universities into a single Jacobs State University, after H.P. Jacobs, a former slave and Jackson State founder.
Mason told Mississippi Public Broadcasting on Thursday he was only trying to create discussion with the proposal.
Bounds told lawmakers Thursday that because state revenues are struggling and budgets are being cut, the universities collectively could lose 1,042 class sections by the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2012. He said that would mean larger class sizes, or it could mean some students will have to wait to enroll in courses they need to complete their degrees.
Percy Norwood of Carrollton, a retired Coast Guard captain who earned a chemistry degree from Alcorn in 1968, said after the meeting that he worries black students will be disproportionately hurt by education cuts.
“Obviously, these are tough times,” Norwood said. “But cutting education when you need an educated work force? This is ridiculous.”
Blonda Mack of Jackson, who attended Jackson State in the early 1970s, said she’s not satisfied that the issue of university mergers is dead.
“We still have questions,” Mack said in a Capitol hallway. “We still will be back up here when they bring it up again.”
The bills are Senate Bill 2701 and 2710.