College Board to consider cuts

JACKSON – The state College Board is preparing to cut academic programs at Mississippi’s eight public universities to deal with anticipated major budget shortfalls.
Hank Bounds, the new commissioner of higher education, on Thursday presented the board with a plan to take dramatic cost-saving measures to offset what he believes will be budget cuts of 10 percent for the upcoming year, totaling $80 million, and cuts of 20 percent the following year.
The cuts are expected to be larger in two years after the loss of federal stimulus funds.
“It is time for us to be bold,” said Bounds, who was named earlier this summer by the College Board to oversee the 82,000-student university system.
No vote was taken Thursday after Bounds’ presentation at the monthly meeting in the Institutions of Higher Learning board room, but several members said they supported the direction Bounds is leading the schools.
No board member voiced opposition.
“My prediction is that you will see programs eliminated at each university,” said College Board President Scott Ross of West Point.
College Board member Aubrey Patterson of Tupelo said, “IHL and Hank Bounds are taking a proactive approach to deal with the situation.”
The IHL is dealing with the issue, Patterson said, even though he and others believe universities have been underfunded compared to other state entities in recent years.
But he said he believes the results of the action “will be a stronger system on the other end.”
He also expressed hope the Legislature and governor would recognize the effort in future years with a renewed vigor to move the universities to the average appropriation per student of their peer institutions in the Southeast.
Over the past year, the state has been struggling with a slowdown in state revenue collections during the current national recession. Earlier this month, Gov. Haley Barbour cut all of education, including the universities, 5 percent. The cut equaled $30.5 million for the IHL system.
Bounds and others believe the cuts will be more dramatic in the coming two years.
To deal with the cuts, he is putting together teams to make recommendations on ways to merge the administrative duties at the universities, to reduce textbook costs, to conserve utility costs and to make other efficiency savings.
Those potential savings will be presented to the board during its Oct. 15 meeting.
But Bounds said he does not anticipate enough savings in those areas to deal with the projected cuts during the coming two years.
“Unfortunately, we may have to look at academic programs,” he said. “It may necessitate consolidating some programs. It may necessitate removing some programs.”
Many College Board members, looking for ways to slow the rise in tuition, indicated that a thorough review of the academic programs at the eight universities is needed regardless of the budget situation.
“We are talking about transformative changes,” said College Board member Amy Whitten of Oxford. “We are talking about the type of change that we can’t tell you exactly what it will look like on the other side. You just have to trust us.”
While the College Board could act as early as next month on efficiency changes, it will take more time to deal with a review of the academic programs.
“There is no formal timeline, but all of it will be ASAP,” Ross said. “We don’t have the option to wait.”
Donna Oliver, the president of Mississippi Valley State, said, “it will not be easy when it comes to costing someone a job because you have eliminated a program.”

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal