Jones' first year: A battle of the budget

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – When Dan Jones succeeded Robert Khayat as University of Mississippi chancellor a year ago, there was no doubt with what he would wrestle most.
“The biggest challenge is the budget,” said Jones, who came to the position July 1, 2009, after several years of guiding the university’s Health Sciences campus in Jackson. “I knew to expect that.”
State funding is off by some 25 percent since its peak in Fiscal Year 2009, and his administration has already taken the hard step of raising tuition for the 2010-11 academic year.
“It’s a lot more fun to make decisions about new dollars and new revenue,” he mused.
The tenuous economy has made private fundraising a challenge as well. Noting that FY 2009 was an exceptionally good year, he said FY 2010 may end up 15-20 percent down, reflecting national trends for charitable giving. Still, the situation is better than Jones had anticipated.
“People have continued giving money, and we’re very grateful for their support as an outpouring of affection for this university,” he said. He is using the economic lull to strengthen relationships with established and potential donors.
Federal funding has helped several projects materialize during Jones’ first year.
Among them are an expansion of the National Center for Natural Products Research and the first building in the long-awaited Insight Park, which will host businesses that build on Ole Miss’ research.
Both projects reflect a commitment Jones made to increase Ole Miss’ offerings in the sciences.
Other tangible advances include the first residential college, which opened in September 2009, and another slated to open in August. A new law center is scheduled for a January opening.
Academic successes
Jones delights in touting strong academic programs, noting national recognitions of the School of Accountancy as a Top 20 school and the School of Pharmacy’s ranking as leading the nation in outside research funding.
The School of Business’ online MBA program was ranked 13th best value of 133 peer programs nationwide. The Barksdale Honors College has been recognized as one of the three best in the nation.
Jones expects to see further enhancement, both qualitative and quantitative.
“Even in our slow economy,” he said, “we have a potential for growing our undergraduate programs – and a large potential for growing and improving our graduate programs.”
Jones noted that some departments such as History and English have star potential that is yet to be tapped.
“We have nationally competitive programs in those areas, and I’ll just say they don’t yet have the visibility that some other programs do,” he said.
Cultural change
After the soft economy, arguably Jones’ next biggest challenge has been cultural contentions that pit tradition against inclusiveness.
He stopped the Ole Miss Marching Band from playing a medley of “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” during football games when students shouted to its last notes, “The South Will Rise Again!” – a chant that some say is an affectionate statement about better days ahead, while others say it conjures hurtful parts of the region’s history.
Khayat had removed Colonel Reb – a character many loved but that some viewed as a throwback to plantation days – from the sidelines in 2003, and Jones made it clear he would not bring the caricature back.
Even now, the university is piloting a process to create a replacement mascot.
“In both instances, the conversations began with the decisions of student leadership,” Jones said. “I’m proud of our students for wanting to deal with these difficult issues in a proactive way, but there are divided opinions and divided passions.”
At his low-key investiture in April, Jones, a physician, emphasized a theme of service aimed at improving lives. The university’s chief opportunity for service, he said, is to improve the economy, health and quality of life in Mississippi by providing higher education to as many as possible.
“We must not allow our passions around traditions or perceived traditions to distract us from the main thing,” he said, hinting at the controversies he wants to put behind.
“Budgets, buildings, landscaping, administrators, chancellors, athletics, traditions – these are all only useful as they support our faculty and students in the educational process.”
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.