/University presidents Future of Mississippi is at stake

University presidents Future of Mississippi is at stake

Nonprofit Mississippi News Presidents of all eight public universities made a stark plea Monday to legislators: We need more money for Mississippi’s future as well as students who pay tuition. Jeffrey Vitter, University of Mississippi chancellor, said that “We are getting to the point where there’s really danger if we go beyond this.” “If you don’t strengthen the budgets there’s a lot at stake. Really the future of Mississippi.” Presidents requested a $85 million (or 14 percent) budget increase for the next fiscal year. This is a huge request considering that the Joint Legislative Budget Committee recommended that universities be given a $19million cut in next year’s budget. Many presidents stated that tuition rates would rise if the proposed budget cuts by the Legislature were implemented. Presidents also stated that more budget cuts would decrease the chance of faculty being attracted and retained. Vitter stated, “It is so much more costly to rebuild than it is to maintain.” The grim outlook offered by university presidents is in line with what many agency and department directors requested and will continue to seek for the next fiscal year. However, lawmakers are usually limited to spending the revenue collected by the state. Senator Briggs Hopson (R-Vicksburg), who is the chairman of IHL appropriations committee, stated that after the meeting, the presidents made it clear what role universities play in the future of Mississippi. Hopson stated, “I am hopeful that this year will not be anywhere like (previous) years and we’re going for a brighter outlook.” “It’s all about economics, research and the future state of our state.” The Institutes for Higher Learning have made big budget cuts in the last three fiscal years. For university spending, legislators allocated $773 million in fiscal 2016. The end of the fiscal year saw mid-year budget cuts due dwindling revenue reducing their total expenditures by $757 million. In fiscal 2017, universities had budgeted for $748 million. However, the total spending had dropped to $702 million by the end of the fiscal year due to budget cuts in the middle of the fiscal year. The current fiscal year 2018 saw $667 million allocated by lawmakers to universities for spending. Mid-year budget cuts have not been required so far. However, universities have worked hard to make the appropriations go through. Glenn Boyce, IHL Commissioner, stressed the difficulty of competing with neighboring states. He pointed out to the House Appropriations Committee that Alabama and Tennessee pay approximately 97 percent of the Southern Regional Education Board median salary for a four-year institution, while Mississippi pays 79.6 per cent. Boyce stated that several of Alabama’s schools are located within 90 miles of the University of Alabama. It’s difficult to have a great faculty member that can drive 90 miles and land in a new location, while still getting a 19% raise. It’s very difficult to keep your faculty at work. “We’re currently in our second year without pay increases,” stated Mark Keenum of Mississippi State University. Keenum stated that the thought of having to do it again for a third time is “devastating” to him. “We offer a great deal for our students, but no-one likes to increase tuition.” “What are our options if we don’t get any additional funding from the Legislature?” Keenum asked. In the House, Rep. Nolan Mettetal (R-Sardis) told higher education leaders that the situation could be one that warrants dipping into the Rainy day Fund to offset funding woes. Mettetal stated, “Certainly, this time that I would support that initiative should our leadership wish to move in that direction.” “We are embarrassed that we are not able to give additional funds to those people that do such an amazing job for Mississippians,” Mettetal said. Jerryl Briggs, President of Mississippi Valley State University, stated that budget cuts could affect upcoming accreditation reviews. William Bynum, president of Jackson State University, stated to lawmakers that the $6.7million phase out from the Ayers settlement is a “double whammy for his university’s finances. A federal desegregation case, Ayers, was settled by the plaintiffs in a settlement with the state. The state committed to providing additional funding for three historically black institutions higher education. This special funding will soon end. Due to budget cuts, staffers at the University of Mississippi Medical Center have already been laid off. In an effort to combat the state’s shortage of doctors, the state’s only academic medical centre opened a new School of Medicine in 2013. Monday’s presidents also mentioned specific budget issues, such as their ability to attract students from high schools and community colleges to four-year universities; the ability for them to compete with research grants with universities in the region and state; the ability of maintaining the university’s capital; and the loss of accreditation and decline in national rankings. Most state agencies are already suffering from several unexpected and planned budget cuts over the past three years. The legislative budget committee’s recommendations are only that until final appropriations bills can be passed in March. The agency heads will have ample time to present their case before the appropriations committee and subcommittee members, who will make final decisions in the coming weeks. Legislative liaisons and lobbyists with high-powered positions will have a say in the final spending amounts. The Legislature recommends that $5.5 billion be spent in general funds. This is a 1.2 percent decrease in spending for the current fiscal years. To deal with budget shortfalls, the proposed budget would reserve 2 percent of state revenues for the state’s emergency funds. Only five general fund agencies and departments would see year-over-year increases, while 68 other agencies and departments would be affected by the reductions. Rodney Bennett, president of University of Southern Mississippi, stated that “our deepest concern is that as these problems compound, we face at least two alarming facts: The need to even more appropriation of funds to restore our institutions to a baseline position of competitiveness.” Bennett stated that there has been a decline in the ability of Mississippi to attract skilled, experienced faculty, staff, and administrators willing to travel to Mississippi to help with rebuilding. This will likely take many decades. To support this important work, you can make a regular donation to the Spring Member Drive today. Our reporters give a human face to policy’s impact on everyday Mississippians by listening more closely and understanding their communities. To ensure that our work is aligned with the priorities and needs of Mississippians, we are listening to you. Click the button below to let us know what you think. Republish this Story You can freely republish our articles online or in print under a Creative Commons licence. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Mississippi Today, Adam Ganucheau
January 22, 2018