University Merger Talks
Legislative rumblings being heard
November 04, 2009
By Elizabeth Crisp - The Clarion Ledger
Private discussions of potential university mergers continue among lawmakers as the 2010 legislative session approaches, but some leaders are hoping to quash any actual consideration of a proposal.
Higher-education analysts have predicted the economic crisis would cause the closing or merger of a number of U.S. public and private colleges.
Rep. George Flaggs, a member of the legislative budget committee, revived the discussion in Mississippi during his speech at the Mississippi Economic Council's Hobnob last month by questioning whether the state needs eight public universities.
Flaggs, a fiscal conservative, said his concern is the state can't continue to afford eight universities.
"I'm simply just stating that there's no way we can resolve our budget crisis without having an open and honest discussion about education," he said. "I'm looking at the facts; we've either got to find some new revenue or find somewhere to cut back."
"Consolidation has been talked about every year that I've been in education," state Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said. "It takes two houses and a governor to approve that, so I think only time will tell."
The discussions often have focused on combining Mississippi University for Women with Mississippi State and Mississippi Valley State with Delta State.
"Those talks haven't gone very far, but we face very different economic circumstances," Bounds said.
A recent report from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities suggests mergers should not be considered solely in terms of cost-benefit analysis, though.
It points out that "even during a recession, care should be taken to balance both the budgets and unique missions - including institutional culture, populations served, public service missions, programmatic needs and local work force development needs."
The state university system, as well as Mississippi University for Women, Mississippi Valley State, Delta State, Mississippi State, Alcorn State, Jackson State and the University of Southern Mississippi are members of the AASCU.
The report notes the "delicacy involved in prospective mergers between state institutions whose public service missions and populations are not - and were not designed to be - identical."
In 2001, then-College Board member Roy Klumb suggested MUW become a private school or a branch of Mississippi State and recommended merging DSU and MVSU. Other board members rejected the proposal, which was mailed to several newspapers, as Klumb's personal view and not the official opinion of the board.
Before that, the College Board had recommended the same mergers in 1994 as part of its desegregation remedy, but a federal judge turned the plan down.
A College Board proposal in 1986 that the Legislature close MUW was quashed by intense lobbying by alumni and students.
MUW was founded as a female-only institution but began accepting men in 1982. It is about 25 miles from MSU.
Valley State, founded as a historically black college in 1950, is about 40 miles from DSU.
In recent months, MUW leaders have been engaged in a process to change the university's name in an attempt to make it more viable.
"I'm very concerned about the future of that university," Bounds said.
The name-change proposal, which has been opposed by some alumni and students, has not come before the state College Board. It must also be approved by the Legislature.
"In tough financial times, the smaller you are, the more difficult it can be to adapt," Bounds said.
MUW's total enrollment has fallen nearly 25 percent between 1998 and 2008, but Bounds cautioned that all institutions should be concerned about enrollment. "(MUW's) not the only university that needs to grow," he said.
Mississippi Valley State and Delta State were the only universities to see enrollment drop this semester.
Delta State's enrollment has been nearly level at about 4,000 students for the past 10 years.
After seeing some gains in the late 1990s and early 2000s, MVSU's enrollment has been on a steady decline since 2004. It fell to 2,819 this semester.
Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Billy Broomfield, D-Moss Point, cautioned that the Black Caucus would take "any attack on historically black colleges and universities very seriously."
"The last thing we should be contemplating is closure or merger," he said.
Talk of a proposal to close or merge certain historically black colleges in the state prompted the caucus to issue a statement last week.
"I join an overwhelming number of Black Caucus members in the belief that no university should be closed," Broomfield said in the statement. House Universities and Colleges Committee Chairman Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs, told The Clarion-Ledger he sees discussions of possible mergers as being "short-sighted."
"To focus on just a couple of colleges closing is simply not a prudent approach," he said.
Buck said he has heard a lot of discussion about possible consolidations, but he would not speculate about the possibility of legislation.
Senate Universities and Colleges Committee Chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando, said the discussion has not come as a surprise to him.
"You're going to hear serious conversations on topics that this Legislature has not addressed in recent years," Davis said of the efforts to pass the next budget.
Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who also spoke at Hobnob but missed Flaggs' remarks, stopped short of expressing approval or disapproval of consolidations when asked about them afterward.
"Clearly, it can't just be business as usual," he said. "That's not what the citizens deserve."
In September, Barbour slashed nearly $172 million - mostly in education funding - from the state budget, and he has advised agencies to brace for more cuts.
The AASCU report notes the consolidation process, particularly for public systems that require legislative approval, can have additional ramifications and costs. It also can affect accreditation.
"As such, it is prudent for state and institutional decision-makers to examine the history of higher education mergers when considering merger proposals," the report states.
Much of recent discussions across the South have focused on larger system mergers.
Some Tennessee leaders have called for merging the state's four-year schools under a single administrative system. The (Nashville) Tennessean reported that Gov. Phil Bredesen has been holding private meetings with key lawmakers and members of his administration to discuss reforming the state's higher education system.
Meanwhile, Georgia officials recently consolidated nine technical colleges into four new colleges.