JACKSON – This university merger talk that Gov. Haley Barbour has inspired by including it in his budget proposal is not new.
As Buddy Bynum, Barbour’s communications director pointed out, a similar proposal was made in the 1980s by the Board of Trustees of state Institutions of Higher Learning. Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, remembers that 1980s’ proposal well.
He said he was one of 35 representatives in the 122-member House to vote to merge the Mississippi University for Women in Columbus with nearby Mississippi State. Holland said that among the loyal MUW alumni who opposed the merger was Rebecca Whitten, the wife of his former boss and powerful U.S. House member Jamie Whitten.
“Mr. Whitten sent me a note after my vote saying with only 35 members voting for the merger I could have done more good by writing a letter to the editor,” Holland quipped, pointing out a wicked sense of humor that not many knew Whitten possessed. In other words, Whitten, then at the height of his legendary powerful as U.S. House Appropriations Committee chair, was pointing out to Holland, who once served as a member of his staff, that he was making a politically tough vote on an issue that had no chance of passing in the legislative process. He ad as much impact as a letter to the editor.
The small, but loyal group of MUW supporters can be effective lobbyists in the halls of the state Capitol. That fact most will likely not be lost on Holland and other legislators as Barbour’s latest university merger proposal is considered.
Barbour’s proposal, released earlier this month, is to merge MUW with Mississippi State. He also wants to merge the three historically black universities, Alcorn in Lormam, Mississippi Valley at Itta Bena and Jackson State under the JSU umbrella. Barbour said he believes the move would make the three historically black schools “a premier university” and “an emerging black great urban university.”
How successful Barbour is remains to be seen. He has had substantial legislative successes during his tenure. But this could be his biggest challenge.
Barbour said the merger is needed to save money during the ongoing economic downturn that is playing havoc with state tax collections.
But the merger will not save as much as Barbour originally said it would save. He originally estimated it would save $35 million, but his staff now admits that their own estimate is that it will save $19.9 million
In putting together the budget proposal the governor’s staff combined the total state appropriations for Valley, MUW and Alcorn and estimated that by the merger about one-third or 35 percent of total operational costs could be saved. It other words, the budget proposal and Barbour should have stated the merger would save 35 percent of the three schools’ operational costs not $35 million.
The governor’s staff settled on 35 percent because that is similar to what a College Board study in the 1980s that had similar recommendations estimated would be saved.
Part of the reason for the governor’s proposal and for the College Board’s recommendation in the 1980s is that for years there have been concerns about the long-term viability of Mississippi University for Women.
One solution for the MUW controversy might be to give the school away.
Let me clarify. I am serious about this proposal, but as far as I know no one in a position of authority is serious about it. I did have conversations about the proposal to make MUW private with one unnamed member of state government who is in a position to at least recommend it to a person in authority.
But, think about it – the MUW loyalists are not happy with the direction the school is taking with the proposed name change that many state officials say is essential to the survival of the university. As a private school, perhaps owned by a church, it could pursue its original mission, which the traditionalists are insistent that it do, and still be a viable university.
Just food for thought.
Contact Journal Capitol Bureau chief Bobby Harrison by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (601) 353-3119.
Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal