Bounds stays out of college mergers

JACKSON – Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds steered clear of the controversial topic of closing or merging universities Thursday, though he did say he was “concerned” for the future of the Mississippi University for Women.
With Mississippi facing historically difficult budget trouble, there has been talk of taking dramatic action to deal with funding issues.
A task force on underperforming schools is studying consolidation of kindergarten through 12th grade school districts.
State Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, speaking at a Mississippi Economic Council meeting last week, said school district and university consolidation should at least be considered.
During a meeting Thursday to discuss the enactment of the 2004 settlement of the Ayers college desegregation case, Bounds was asked about other issues, including funding.
He said the state College Board continues to look for savings through consolidation of programs and possibly by eliminating academic programs at some universities.
He said closings and consolidation have been discussed for years “without going very far… This year may be different given the economic uncertainty,” but he refused to speculate beyond there.
“The board is committed to being as lean as we can possibly be, but we are also committed to quality. The Legislature will have to deal with those other issues.”
Only the Legislature can close or merge universities.
In the past, closing or merging some of the state’s eight public universities has been discussed. Much of that talk has centered on Mississippi University for Women in Columbus and Mississippi Valley State at Itta Bena, the two smallest schools.
Efforts have been ongoing to change the name of MUW, which is the state’s smallest school with less than 2,400 students. Outgoing MUW President Claudia Limbert has recommended that the name be changed to Reneau University in honor of Sallie Eola Reneau, who led the effort in Mississippi for women’s higher education in the 1800s.
That change also must be approved by the Legislature. Bounds said he does not believe the name change will be discussed during the November meeting of the College Board and is not sure when it will be taken up.
But he said research indicates about 3 percent of senior girls are interested in going to a college identified by gender.
“I can tell you I am very concerned about the future of that university,” Bounds said. He added universities need to be able to grow to generate revenue in light of projected cuts in state funding. He said MUW, because of its name, has restraints to growth that other schools do not have.
Gov. Haley Barbour, who is set to release his budget proposal in November, has not commented on possible school district or university merger or consolidations. He has asked agency heads “to conduct a detailed, top-to-bottom analysis of its operations in order to identify their most essential programs and priorities.”

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal