As both MSU President Mark Keenum and MUW President Claudia Limbert stressed, this is not the first step toward a merger of the two institutions. That’s the first question that would naturally come to mind given Gov. Haley Barbour’s recent proposal – ignored in the Legislature – to merge MUW into the MSU administrative umbrella, an idea that has been around since at least the 1980s.
Instead, this is about finding ways to accomplish what merger proponents want – cost savings – without eliminating any university’s stand-alone identity or independent administrative operations.
With state revenues in severe decline, Mississippi’s universities have been hit with several rounds of budget cuts and expect to see state support reduced by as much as 25 percent over a three-year period. While the percentage of state funding of universities has been dropping steadily for years, the cuts sustained this year and anticipated over the next couple of years will be huge in relative terms.
The political will for a tax increase to shore up Mississippi’s higher education system – as well as K-12 schools, community colleges and other vital services – doesn’t exist. Absent that, institutions have no choice other than to explore new ways of doing things that maximize efficiency and minimize the damage to students who are saddled with higher tuition payments as funding levels drop.
Simply put, the status quo is unacceptable. Creative thinking and bold action are required.
State Commissioner of Higher Education Hank Bounds recently charged Keenum and Limbert to come up with cost-saving proposals in which their universities, only about 20 miles apart, can share resources to benefit students. They’ve taken the charge seriously and come up with several changes, including dual programs in nursing and culinology, which the state College Board approved at its meeting last week.
Further steps in collaboration will be considered as teams at the two schools review the possibilities.
What’s happening at Mississippi State and MUW shouldn’t – and likely won’t – be confined to those two universities linked by geographic proximity. Similar reviews should take place across the university system as individual institutions identify opportunities for cost-saving collaboration that reduces the impact of unprecedented budget cuts.
It’s been said that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. If the current budget crisis in Mississippi can result in a more efficient, less duplicative system of higher education in the state, it won’t have been wasted.