By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Mississippi’s two big rival universities are working together more closely today than they have in recent memory, leaders said.
Their collaboration began two and a half years ago when the heads of the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University announced their institutions would join forces on a task force dedicated to improving Northeast Mississippi.
“We have fun with the rivalry, but there is great mutual respect between university leaders and a willingness to work together,” said Kyle Steward, executive director of external affairs at MSU. “I don’t think there is any question this partnership enhanced those relationships. There is a stronger sense of cooperation between us.”
That task force of about 20 leaders and deans from both schools formally met four times in 2010 and 2011. Although they have not met as a full unit since then, representatives from the two universities have continued to have various meetings and to work together on projects. Results of their collaboration have become evident.
“The doors are open wider than ever for cooperation between the two,” said Andy Mullins, chief of staff to the chancellor at the University of Mississippi.
Both MSU President Mark Keenum and Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones spoke about the importance of working together when they were installed into their current positions. They were given that opportunity when the CREATE Foundation convened the task force.
Several benefits to the region have followed. The two universities compiled an extended list of the services they provide, and CREATE distributed copies of that report to economic developers throughout Northeast Mississippi. Each institution also designated a single contact person for developers with questions.
The universities have joined forces at workshops that help parents fill out required federal financial aid forms. Their education departments have agreed to work closely to improve teacher training. Even last month’s early-childhood education summit emerged from the task force.
“The relationships built and the desire of both universities to serve the region is paying off in a big way for our region,” said Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president at the CREATE Foundation.
Building on an idea that arose during the discussions, Ole Miss launched a pilot program last spring with Northeast Mississippi Community College to help more students earn two-year associate’s degrees. The program was designed for students who transfer to the university from the community college before earning enough credits to graduate from the two-year school. Many of those students do not graduate from the university and end up with no degree to show for their efforts.
Northeast agreed to count classes from the university toward a student receiving that degree retroactively. Ole Miss reviewed records of students who had transferred from Northeast during the past five years who were still enrolled at the university. If the student had earned the needed credits and if that person agreed to have their records shared, Ole Miss notified the community college.
UM leaders then decided to expand the review to transfers from all of the state’s community colleges and eventually found more than 100 students who were able to receive their associate’s degrees. Building upon the model, the Institutions of Higher Learning is now working to craft such an agreement between all of the state’s universities and community colleges.
“I see two benefits,” said Ole Miss Provost Morris Stocks, who noted momentum was provided by the task force. “The completion or earning of a certificate provides greater opportunity than having begun the process.
“Second, there is research that says once an individual earns one certificate or degree, they are more likely to continue toward the next degree. I think in the long run, it has the potential for not only generating more associate degrees, but also generating more baccalaureate degrees.”