By NEMS Daily Journal
It was fairly clear from the start that Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposal to consolidate some Mississippi universities wouldn’t go far, even in the current environment of budget cuts, program eliminations and likely layoffs. It’s too touchy politically for the Legislature to even look as if it’s considering merging institutions.
State College Board president Scott Ross of West Point said last week there had been no discussion among board members about consolidation. “We have assumed the merger idea is dead on arrival at the Capitol, and there is no other reason for us to discuss it,” Ross said.
Barbour had proposed consolidating Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State with Jackson State University and Mississippi University for Women with Mississippi State. The proposal is a variation on a theme that recurs in Mississippi policy-making circles once a decade or so.
The reason is simple: Mississippi has eight universities, which on the face of it is too many for a state with resources as limited as ours. It’s primarily due to the legacy of segregation in Mississippi, since three of the eight are historically black institutions created only because the state wouldn’t let black students attend “white” universities.
If the state were creating a higher education system from scratch today, it wouldn’t resemble the one we’ve got. But Mississippi today must deal with the hand that our past has dealt us.
That past includes long-standing neglect of the three historically black schools until recent years when a federal court case forced additional funding – ostensibly to make them more attractive to non-minority students, which hasn’t worked as intended. Jackson State University President Ronald Mason privately circulated an idea for merger of the three universities into a new entity named Jacobs State University, after one of the founders of Jackson State, but that idea has been thoroughly pilloried since it became public.
Mason makes the argument that the three HBUs will remain underfunded in perpetuity and that a merger could actually create one strong institution with a continuing mission of educating primarily minority students. His argument makes sense.
So does the suggestion of at least merging some of the administrative functions of MUW with Mississippi State, another idea that resurfaces from time to time but has never gotten political traction, thanks to energetically resistant MUW alums.
University loyalties everywhere engender strong emotions. It will never be easy to change any structures, regardless of the economic or educational sense it makes.
But the discussion should continue, especially as the times demand new vision and solutions. Mississippi’s higher education landscape is a portrait based on 19th and early 20th century realities. At some point, the demands of the 21st must take precedence.