Rivals unite for a good cause

By Chris Kieffer / NEMS Daily Journal

Northeast Mississippi’s development challenges are not news, but a consortium now working to solve them certainly is.
University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones and Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum announced in May that those two universities – bitter rivals on the athletic field – would pool their resources to improve the region that both schools call home.
“Mississippi State and Ole Miss have a spirited rivalry, but we also collaborate on initiatives to help move our state forward,” said Kyle Steward, executive director of external affairs at Mississippi State and one of the task force members.
Another task force member, Larry Ridgeway of Ole Miss, said such collaboration is important for the state.
“I think so many times we tend to focus on our differences rather than our commonality,” said Ridgeway, vice chancellor for Student Affairs. “I think it is in the best interest of both institutions as well as of the citizens of Mississippi to figure out ways to collaborate and work together.”
Interviews with each representative on the 20-member task force reveal a focus on improving the region’s percentages of residents with college degrees and its average salaries.
The task force also hopes to help attract more industries.
It plans to do so by bringing together brain power and resources focused on the area they call home.
“We have unique resources,” Jones said. “Our most unique resource is our faculty. We want to bring together members of our faculty and administration to think creatively about how we can be purposeful about bringing about improved living conditions in this region.”
Nine members from each university met in Tupelo in late July along with CREATE Senior Vice President Lewis Whitfield and Journal Inc. CEO Billy Crews, who also will serve on the task force.
Whitfield and Crews were both asked to be on the task force as representatives of the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi, an arm of the CREATE Foundation.
At that first meeting, task force members discussed some of the group’s goals and Northeast Mississippi’s greatest challenges. They used much of the research that CREATE and the Commission have already completed.
The group will meet again sometime in September to begin brainstorming possible solutions.
“We have low incomes because we have low educational attainment,” Whitfield said. “I believe the universities can help us improve educational attainment. Beyond that, I think they can help us with other projects yet to be determined.”
Task force members include provosts, vice chancellors/vice presidents of research and student affairs and deans of schools of education, engineering, agriculture, applied science and business.
As their work goes forward, they may break into several groups to accomplish identified objectives. For instance, the deans of the schools of education might meet with community college and K-12 leaders to brainstorm ways to decrease dropout rates.
“Through a group like this, we can creatively advocate for the importance of education and push that envelope,” said Richard Blackbourn, dean of MSU’s College of Education.
Other groups might meet with local development agencies, such as Tupelo’s Community Development Foundation, to devise ways to bring jobs, industries or projects to the region.
“We hope to use the practical part of our research to bring some higher-level industries into the region,” said Alex Cheng, dean of UM’s School of Engineering.
Keenum said that getting community input and buy-in will be a big part of ensuring the task force’s success.
“I can’t emphasize enough that it will take the feedback from community leaders,” Keenum said. “The community needs to help identify priorities and be willing to commit themselves. We’re there to provide resources to help the community be successful.”
The group has not yet defined how it will evaluate its success. Jones said he expects those measures to include the percentage of the population that attends and graduates from high schools, community colleges and universities.
“We won’t be working in isolation but those are some of the outcomes we want to be measured by,” Jones said.
Both Keenum and Jones said the task force is vital to the missions of their universities and that those two universities can’t reach their full potential if their region doesn’t reach its.
“They go hand in hand,” Keenum said. “For Mississippi State to be everything we want and expect this university to be, we need to have a strong region here. Particularly, the region where Mississippi State resides needs to be reflective of the greatness and the strength of this university.”
Added Jones: “In my view, we should be evaluated not only on our own merits but on the influence we have on our state and region. I think that is part of how our success should be evaluated is by the opportunities that are available broadly in the community. We should be making a difference.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.