By Jeannie Riess/Greenwood Commonwealth
ITTA BENA — Alfred Rankins Jr. remembers spending every Saturday of his childhood cheering from the football bleachers for a Mississippi Valley State University victory. The Greenville native is back on campus, this time cheering for Valley’s enrollment, not just the numbers on its scoreboard.
Both of Rankins’ parents and a few other family members attended MVSU, which is why he grew up a Valley fan, but the acting president of the university said when he was 18 and looking at colleges, he wanted to go farther away from home.
Rankins attended Alcorn University, then went on to receive a master’s degree in science and doctorate in philosophy from Mississippi State University. He currently serves as the associate commissioner for academic and student affairs for the state College Board.
Rankins is willing to talk about the future of his new charge, but wary to talk about its past.
“I’m not going to talk about anything negative that happened before I got here,” he said.
He did not need much pressing, however, to talk about where the university is heading and its problems and its weaknesses.
“I see retaining students to be the most important issue facing this university,” said Rankins. “It’s very important that we recruit more students, retain those students while they’re here on campus, and graduate those students in a timely fashion. But as I look at those three, retention is the most important.”
Rankins attributed Valley’s loss of students primarily to financial woes.
Earlier this year, the College Board approved a tuition increase of 7.6 percent at Valley, with an 8.5 percent average increase at eight other public universities across the state.
“Many of our students come from humble backgrounds, and they’ve struggled to pay for the rising cost of education,” Rankins said.
He said that a crucial lifeline to the university would be an increase in “the amount of institutional aid available for students, to give them a financial bridge so they can stay in school and complete their degrees.”
With cuts being made across the state, however, that won’t be easy.
When Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds introduced Rankins to the faculty and staff of Valley in November, Bounds warned about what a decrease in state funding, coupled with low recruitment, would do to the university.
Rankins, for his part, is steadily optimistic.
He said tuition at Valley is still “a bargain” compared to universities across the state, and he named recruitment as another one of the most urgent issues to be addressed during his tenure at Valley.
“Even though tuition is rising, we’re still on the lower beam of the tuition scale to a lot of schools in other states,” he said.
He said that a key part of a renewed recruitment effort would be advertising the benefits of an MVSU education not just locally, but to students outside of the Delta region as well.
“Historically, about 85 percent of Valley students come from 10 counties in the Mississippi Delta. And as we all know, the population in the Mississippi Delta is shrinking. So, on the recruitment side, I think we’re going to have to recruit as intentionally in the Delta as we always have, but we also have to step up our recruitment efforts outside of the Delta, in order to grow.”
Rankins said an extended recruitment campaign would be mutually beneficial to both the university and the region.
“We know that a percentage of students that graduate from the institution will settle in the region around the institution. So naturally, if we bring in more students from outside of the Delta, we feel like once they leave Valley, some of those students will stay here.
“I think we offer an environment where students are not just a number. We have smaller class sizes, so students have more interaction with the faculty. I think we offer a lot here at Valley and we need to do a better job of marketing what we have to offer at this institution,” said Rankins.
The acting president said that reinvigorating Valley’s marketing was everyone’s concern.
“Students can be one of our biggest recruiting tools, because when a student comes here and has a good experience, naturally they’ll go back to their hometown and they’ll pass that information on to prospective students.”
He said that faculty, staff and administrators all need to put forth a great marketing effort.
“I think I need to visit high schools and go around the state.”
Rankins replaced Donna Oliver, whose contract, which expires Dec. 31, was not renewed by the College Board. Rumors of Rankins’ appointment as president of the university have been swirling, but Bounds said Rankins already has a permanent position in Jackson.
Although Rankins was forthcoming in his comments on the university’s future, he kept comments about his own future thickly veiled. Asked if he would like to stay on in a permanent position with the university if given the chance, he said even discussing the possibility of such a thing was not in the cards.
“I can’t look that far ahead. There is so much to do right here, right now, to help Valley through this transition. And anything further than that is too far for me to think about,” he said.
Bounds said that the board is still actively searching for an interim president.
Even if his tenure at Valley is short, Rankins looks back on the first years of his relationship with the university fondly.
“That was just part of my life,” he said of the football games he attended as a child. “I enjoyed those times and cherish those memories.”
Information from: The Greenwood Commonwealth, http://www.gwcommonwealth.com