Higher education officials pursue savings, stay mum on mergers

JACKSON – Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said Thursday it is too early for him or the College Board to take a position on Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposal to merge universities.
Earlier this week, Barbour proposed the merger of universities as part of his effort to save funds during the current economic slowdown.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the 12-member Board of Trustees of state Institutions of Higher Learning had its regular meeting. The College Board discussed Barbour’s budget proposal, including the merger recommendations, but did not offer any position statement. Bounds said such a response would be “premature.”
Board member Amy Whitten of Oxford did not rule out the possibility that the College Board would take a position on the merger proposal in the future.
Of the need to reduce budgets in light of the economic downturn, Whitten said, “I think we can get there… Merger is one idea, but it is not the only idea.”
The College Board said it would continue with its cost-cutting efforts – initiated earlier this year – at the eight public universities, including the possible elimination of academic programs.
Bounds praised the university presidents and staff for work on the cost-cutting proposals, which are supposed to be complete by the end of January.
In his budget proposal, Barbour recommended Mississippi University for Women in Columbus be merged with Mississippi State in Starkville. He also proposed that the three historically black universities, Alcorn in Lorman, Mississippi Valley in Itta Bena and Jackson State, be merged into one university under the JSU banner.
Barbour has said those mergers should produce about $35 million in savings in two years.
But George Ross, Alcorn’s president, questioned the amount of those savings, saying he has asked how the governor came up with that amount, but had not received any response.
Regardless of whether there are mergers, Bounds said, the universities would be changed by the economic downturn.
“No university in the state will look the same when we get to the other side of this,” Bounds predicted, but added his and the board’s priority is to not sacrifice academic quality.
When asked what people should do if they are considering attending Valley, Alcorn or MUW, Bounds said, “They are going to be vibrant campuses into the future and represent their regions and the state.”
The mergers Barbour is proposing would have minimal impact on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The savings would be realized in two years.
He is proposing a 12.8 percent cut in spending for the upcoming fiscal year or a $102 million reduction from what was appropriated during the 2009 session.
Bounds said the governor, in reality, was proposing cuts of closer to 15 percent. But Bounds said members of the governor’s staff told him it was not their intention to cut the universities any more than the 12.8 percent.
During Thursday’s meeting, Bounds also said the College Board should consider multi-year tuition increases as part of the solution to dealing with the budget crunch.
But he stressed that any tuition increase would fall far short of offsetting the cut in state funds, thus raising the specter of layoffs and pay cuts.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal