Universities pledge to support north Mississippi

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Members of a task force committed to improving Northeast Mississippi pledged Friday to help develop the region’s early childhood education, support its entrepreneurs and market its advanced learning.
The task force of leaders from the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University met at the CREATE Foundation.
Friday was the fourth meeting for the group since it was created in May, and three subcommittees provided their ideas for the impact the group could have.
Those committees focused on K-12 education, access to higher learning and community development.
In addition to the university representatives, the committees had college and community presidents, school superintendents and development foundation heads.
“I’ve been pleased with how Mississippi State and Ole Miss have worked together,” said Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president at the CREATE Foundation and a member of the task force. “That is what we need for the region.”
Both universities pledged to “redouble efforts” to provide the best prepared teachers to support school districts in Northeast Mississippi, Richard Blackbourn said in presenting the report for the K-12 committee. Blackbourn is the dean of MSU’s College of Education.
Both Blackbourn and David Rock, the dean of the UM School of Education, said they need to raise their standards to attract more honors students and those with higher grade-point averages and ACT scores to the field of education.
The committee also emphasized the importance of early childhood education. It urged school districts to use federal funding to offer educational programs for pre-kindergarten students and recommended the districts to develop better relationships with child care providers.
Members of the economic development committee focused on how the universities can assist developers and respond better to business needs, said Alice Clark, vice chancellor of research at Ole Miss.
To better streamline their work with businesses in the region, each university designated a contact person to facilitate those conversations: Clark and MSU Associate Vice President for Economic Development Melvin Ray.
The universities emphasized the need to translate their knowledge into private sector jobs. Plans for doing so include using their research parks to foster entrepreneurs and to identify resources to help university spin-off companies succeed.
The higher education committee discussed the need to better market the importance of advanced learning, said Morris Stocks, UM provost.
Those efforts include developing a campaign to change the perceptions of middle- and high-school students about higher education. It also includes increasing awareness for the current community college tuition guarantee program.
Committee members also want to develop an agreement that would allow community college students who transferred to a university before receiving their associate degree to count credits earned at the university toward that two-year degree.
“I think what you have is a lot of firepower, a lot of expertise and a lot of great ideas,” said Kyle Steward, executive director of external affairs at MSU. “You have several practical ideas and several visionary or far-reaching ideas, and we are looking forward to implementing them.”
The reports will be submitted to Mississippi State President Mark Keenum and University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones for approval. Task force leaders will then meet to determine their next plan of action.
Keenum and Jones will address the group’s progress at CREATE’s State of the Region meeting on May 26. It was at that meeting last year that the task force was first announced.
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.