By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The leaders of Mississippi’s two Southeastern Conference universities converged Thursday at the BancorpSouth Conference Center to speak about collaboration.
University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones and Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum also backed up that talk by announcing a new joint task force focused on the growth of Northeast Mississippi.
That task force, which was unveiled at the 14th annual CREATE State of the Region meeting, will involve both Jones and Keenum, as well as several other leaders from each university.
“No other state in our nation is more dependent upon the research and economic opportunities our two great universities can bring to this region,” Keenum said.
Economy linked to education
The State of the Region meeting is among the most tangible examples of the collaboration that has been built between the 16 counties that form Northeast Mississippi. Now it appears that the two major universities in the region will follow suit.
“It is time for you to hold us accountable for playing a role in our community in Northeast Mississippi to pull us together,” Jones said.
This year’s State of the Region meeting focused on the impact of education on economic and community development in the region.
Darrin Webb, senior economist with the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, said the low percentage of individuals in the region with college degrees would slow its recovery from the current recession.
According to the most recent statistics, 38 percent of Northeast Mississippi residents have at least some college experience, compared to 43.5 percent for the rest of the state and 51.7 percent for the country.
“Even if we hadn’t had the recession,” Webb said, “we would still be struggling in Mississippi.”
Because manufacturing jobs have declined, he said, the new economy will demand high-skill jobs that require a bachelor’s degree or higher.
As far as the current economic downturn goes, Webb said it appears the worst has passed, although there are concerns that uncertainty in Europe could cause another recession.
He said that local recovery would be slow, however.
“Job growth in Mississippi will be anemic because of education,” he said.
Although the audience also heard presentations about early childhood education, the highlight of the meeting was the public announcement by Jones and Keenum that their universities planned to work together to serve the region.
Jones compared their work to the Research Triangle region in North Carolina, which features a partnership of the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University and Duke University.
Prior to its development in the 1950s and ’60s, North Carolina’s per capita income was 40 percent below the national average, Jones said.
Now the research triangle ranks 5 percent to 10 percent above the national average in per capita income, he said.
The new joint task force will include the provosts of both universities, as well as their student affairs officers and deans of education, business and engineering.
The heads of Mississippi State’s Division of Agriculture, Forestry and Veterinary Medicine and of Ole Miss’ School of Applied Science also will be on the committee.
The group will meet as a whole within the next month or two. It may then break into smaller groups, as needed. It will focus on education on all levels and will look to work with other education entities.
It also will seek ways to attract businesses and industries to the region and to expand research and technical development. It will make recommendations that can be implemented at the universities.
“When it comes to moving our state forward, we have so many respective strengths we can bring together,” Keenum said.
Both university leaders also stressed the importance of removing economic barriers so that all children in the state would have the opportunity to pursue college degrees.
Keenum spoke of the possibility of expanding the tuition guarantee program beyond community colleges.
Jones compared the new relationship between the two universities to one between himself and his older brother.
He said the two of them fiercely competed in a variety of games as children and continue to do so when they meet on the golf course.
But they’ve also spent much time collaborating to help their 94-year old mother – Jones with her health care and his brother, an accountant, with her finances.
“Most relationships in life are competitor-collaborator in one way or another,” Jones said.
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.