UPDATE: USM may cut classes, faculty positions

HATTIESBURG — The economic slowdown might force the University of Southern Mississippi to close its Jackson County campus, cut several tenured positions and eliminate classes.

“We have never witnessed economic conditions like the ones we face today, which necessitate that we make hard choices,” USM President Martha Saunders said in a statement Tuesday as the university considered spending for its next fiscal year.

With the help of federal stimulus dollars, the state Legislature funded higher education this year at about the same level as the previous fiscal year. But the forecast for future funding is dimming.

That has prompted most of Mississippi’s eight public universities to take a closer look at spending and strategies.

“We very well could have less money next year,” Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said of fiscal 2011 funding.

Bounds said the schools may see midyear budget cuts if state revenue continues to fall.

The system’s stagnant state appropriations are being spread thin over inflating costs, leaders say, but the state College Board denied a request from all university leaders to raise tuition on campuses this year.

College Board members repeatedly have said efficiency will be a priority this year and have even hinted toward the potential need to cut or consolidate programs.

Bounds, who took on the commissioner’s role last month, said he will encourage the universities to find “creative ways of saving.”

“We have to pay much more attention to student success,” he said.

Most universities saw hiring freezes and travel restrictions last year, but leaders now are looking for even bigger savings.

“Many educational institutions across the country are experiencing similar or worse situations in what are tough economic times nationally,” USM Chief Financial Officer Joe Morgan said. “We would be remiss and negligent in our responsibilities not to take a long-term look at the situation and plan for the future.”

At Jackson State, the university is working with the Michigan-based Barthwell Group to identify efficiencies, and leaders have acknowledged that programs could be on the chopping block. Final recommendations will be made in January.

“We have to be a different institution,” JSU Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Troy Stovall said. “It’s about student outcomes and creating the best value. We want to be creating a graduate who can go out and compete globally.”

Alcorn State, which eliminated more than 60 positions this summer, also is working with the Barthwell Group to create a strategic plan that could provide opportunities for efficiencies and possible cuts.

School leaders have said the university has no intention of closing any of its three campuses.

Southern Miss leaders set Sept. 1 as the deadline for decisions on the elimination of programs. The university is obligated by law to inform tenure-track faculty a year in advance if their positions will be cut.

University leaders are reviewing the 94 proposed cuts that were identified by a campuswide committee and identifying additional areas for reductions. The cuts add up to about $11 million.

University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones said Ole Miss is not yet looking at sweeping cuts like USM is, but it is keeping the economic climate in mind.

“We’re confident that we will maintain fiscal stability and the quality of our programs now and in coming years,” he said.

Ole Miss is “always planning and reviewing our needs, so to say we are undergoing a specific strategic planning process is not completely accurate,” he said.

At Mississippi State, President Mark Keenum set a goal of increasing MSU’s enrollment to 22,000 students by 2015 to increase revenue. “We have two options – to either cut and reduce or to grow and expand,” Keenum said shortly after taking the position in January.

The Associated Press