College Board actions, reflections of pre-Ayers settlement days

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When the College Board held its June meeting there were several items that clearly reflected the thoughts and attitude of the College Board during the days prior to the so-called settlement of the Ayers case. These included the approval of new academic units for the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Gulf Coast Campus and discussions around the 2022 budget allocations for the universities.

As presented, the proposal of new academic units for the Gulf Coast Campus of USM was part of a six-year incremental plan that was included in the university’s Vision 2020 initiative. Further back in history, however, there are some who will recall that USM had been primed to make such a push during the Ayers litigation in the 1990s.

As a part of its excuse for not wanting to enhance the historically Black universities – Alcorn, Jackson State, and Mississippi Valley – the College Board argued that the state was trying to support too many universities. It was during that time that the board proposed closing Mississippi Valley State University and Mississippi University for Women. It also produced other proposals, one wherein Alcorn would have been merged with Mississippi State or Southern Miss. As the board made those kind of arguments, Alvin Chambliss and other attorneys for the plaintiffs countered by arguing that the state could not be seriously believed if, while claiming that there were too many universities, it was prepared to approve what would be a ninth university, a full-fledged USM campus on the Gulf Coast.

Last week, apparently feeling that the dust is now settled, the board voted unanimously to approve a Gulf Coast USM School of Coastal Resilience, with at least 15 programs ranging from bachelors and licensure programs through the doctoral degree. All of these will be stand-alone programs, that is, not governed by schools on the Hattiesburg campus. The other part of the package was approval of a Gulf Coast USM School of Leadership, with at least 15 programs ranging from graduate certification through the doctorate. Eight of these will be stand-alone programs.

In essence, the board was moving full-steam ahead in developing what amounts to a ninth university. This one, in all likelihood, will dwarf Mississippi Valley, if not Alcorn and Mississippi University of Women. If anyone doubts it, observe the budget allocations over the next several years.

As discussion turned to the budget, one could note that some members on the board appeared relieved to hear that Ayers funding was ending with this allocation. There was also spirited discussion regarding the interest from the public endowment funds provided by the Legislature. One board member wondered aloud, “What would now happen to that money?” The responding staff member indicated that in order for Alcorn, Jackson State, and Valley to have access to those funds, they would have to reach a 10% white student enrollment threshold. Of course, the agreement document suggested that after three years of such white student enrollment, the funds were to be released to the university involved.

Another thing that became clear as the proposed budgets were discussed was that despite remaining far behind the comprehensive universities – Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Miss – the share of state funding for the historically Black universities – Alcorn, Jackson State. and Mississippi Valley – will likely continue to decline, based upon enrollment and program closures.

It is no secret that program closures often lead to greater enrollment decline. Along that line, it may be of interest to note that the second item on the board’s consent agenda was the re-naming of the JSU Department of English and Modern Foreign Languages and Speech Communication. What is not apparent, unless one has been observing over the long-haul, is that many of the foreign language offerings were closed by the board during the James Hefner administration and the speech communication programs was butchered during the Rod Paige administration. This collapsing of the departments reminds the writer of his days as a freshman when English, foreign languages, and speech were all lumped together in what was called “the Language Arts Area.” In that same way History, Political Science, Sociology, Economic, Philosophy, and Geography were lumped together in what was called “the Social Science Area.” That was reflective of size then and it is becoming reflective of size again – as Jackson State shrinks.

In a similar, but even more bold move, Mississippi Valley State University was pressured to surrender its recorded music program during the Donna Oliver administration. That move lost the university potential enrollment and notoriety as can be witnessed by the success of Delta State’s recorded music program and its companion Grammy Museum, which were built on the back of the program surrendered by MVSU.

In other actions, the board put forth its proposed funding priorities for 2023. In that proposal, it highlighted an effort to have the salaries of university faculty increased in order to close the gap between their salaries and the salaries of other faculties in the Southeastern region. We have seen this proposed previously, but the gap keeps widening as other states increase their faculty’s salaries for the same reason. Coming away from the meeting, one official indicated that even this effort by the board misses the mark in two ways. It concentrates on the comprehensive universities rather than all eight universities and it continues to lump administrators in with faculty, causing it to appear that faculty are paid more than they are. In both cases, the true picture is distorted.

The meeting closed on a high-note, as the university presidents were able to boast about what they considered as significant achievements and events on or involving their universities since the last meeting. Among other things, it was very delightful to hear the president of Delta State University underscore the fact that a documentary on basketball phenomenon Lusia Harris had been made and was being aired.

Observing the meetings of the College Board can be a boring task, but connecting the board’s decisions to what has gone before and to live issues of today, can be quite revealing. Perhaps, if more officials, leaders, and activists monitored it – and similar meetings – more improvements could be made that are beneficial to all citizens instead of just the privileged few and the selected institutions.