“It’s one of those things that has kept the board uneasy for many years. We come up with this gut wrenching issue every year.”
– James Luvene, president of the Board of Trustees of the Institutions of Higher Learning
By Stephen Singer
Officials of the state College Board are determined to present a united front when they go to the state Legislature this fall with a request for more money in next year’s appropriation.
But if administrators of the Institutions of Higher Learning, members of the Board of Trustees and the eight campus presidents succeed in their show of unity, it will be despite their divisions on a vexing problem: how best to carve eight slices from a $22.3 million increase they will seek but by no means are assured of receiving.
“This is all very hypothetical. We’re spending a lot of time arguing over something that may not happen,” said Clyda Stokes Rent, president of Mississippi University for Women.
Still, Thomas D. Layzell, commissioner of higher education, and the trustees are expected to ask lawmakers to boost spending by $32.5 million, or about 13 percent above the current $248.1 million state appropriation.
The largest share of that request is $22.3 million, or 9 percent of the 1997 state appropriation that took effect July 1. The spending increase would be earmarked for a range of academic and support programs at the eight campuses.
With the board’s approval, Layzell allocated the $22.3 million by using a formula that calculates the average number of classroom credit hours at each campus in the last three years. To university officials, the formula is an imperfect calculation of productivity.
Another 1 percent of the requested increase would allocate amounts that have been adjusted on the basis of increases in credit hours between 1995 and 1996.
In addition, the requested increase seeks $2.3 million to keep up with inflation. Officials also will request $5.3 million for classroom laboratories, furniture and other built-in costs for new and renovated buildings.
As with any pie that is divided among competing parties, the pieces are criticized as too small and the knife that is wielded is considered too blunt and erratic.
“My concern is that the entire formula is not the best and most fair one,” said William W. Sutton, president of Mississippi Valley State University.
“You’ve got to define productivity beyond the number of credit hours,” said Robert Khayat, president of the University of Mississippi. Other factors could include the number of students who major in a particular academic department or who advance to graduate school for a master’s degree or doctorate, he said.
And like all arguments over how to allocate resources, contention has been rising as funding has diminished. The current appropriation is nearly unchanged from last year’s allocation, which was only 1.2 percent higher than what the Legislature delivered for 1995.
“There’s more stress and strain when there is no money or a little increase,” Sutton said. Pressures mount “when redistribution means taking away from someone and giving to another institution,” he said.
Despite the criticism, the trustees have agreed on the package of increases. The proposal will be submitted to legislative staff members next month and College Board officials will meet with appropriations committee members in late September or early October, well in advance of the January start of the legislative session.
That’s what Rent is keeping her eye on. “We are trying to have our ducks in a row to present a united front to the legislature,” she said.
Beyond that, College Board officials will turn their attention to a larger matter: overall costs in the university system. For the first time, College Board officials will conduct a cost analysis at each of the eight campuses.
In the coming academic year, officials hope to determine how much it costs to teach English at the University of Mississippi, for example, and what the cost of English instruction is at Delta State University.
“By the time we work on the budget next year, we’ll have something everyone can count on,” said Pamela P. Meyer, assistant commissioner of public affairs and development.
The cost analysis is expected to be a valuable tool. Differences between the eight universities – in costs and types of programs- were cited frequently as a criticism of the formula used to calculate the allocation of the proposed funding increase.
“Hopefully, this year we can come up with some program to ease tension between the schools over funding,” said James Luvene, president of the Board of Trustees.
Coming up with a formula that allocates funding fairly among the campuses “hangs over our heads all the time,” he said. “It’s one of those things that has kept the board uneasy for many years. We come up with this gut wrenching issue every year.”
Mississippi State’s Zacharias is among the severest critics of the funding formula; although students enrolled for only 537 fewer credit hours at Mississippi State than at University of Southern Mississippi between 1994 and 1996, the share of the proposed funding increase is slated for $5.4 million, $843,367 less than the $6.2 million earmarked for University of Southern Mississippi.
The Southern Regional Education Board, a group of state universities in 15 southern states, has determined that a university of the size and scope of Mississippi State should spend about $6,095 for each student.
Mississippi State is spending $4,800, Zacharias said. “The productivity formula would not improve that,” he said.
Aubrey K. Lucas, president of University of Southern Mississippi, agrees that the formula “would decrease funding to some of our institutions dramatically.”
Clinton Bristow, president of Alcorn State University, said he is satisfied with the proposal the board of trustees approved. His university would receive an additional $1.2 million.
Bristow identified two areas – new courses on commodities and futures training and robotics – that would “step up” the curriculum the school’s agricultural economics and business program, he said.
A master’s program in business administration would help keep a historically black university such as Alcorn competitive, Bristow said.