Over the last four or five years, there have been complaints about the continuous rise in student tuition at the state’s public universities, resulting in the lower enrollment of students from low-income families. Simultaneously, there have been complaints about the fact that programs, particularly at the smaller universities, are being dropped, shrinking the supply of professionals being produced in those areas. Based upon that reality, we were disappointed, but not surprised, by several college board actions taken last week.
The one bit of college board news reported by a local television station was the fact that Dr. Mark Keenum had his contract as President of Mississippi State University renewed for another four years, making him the longest tenured president in the system. What was not reported, however, may have been more important than just the fact that his contract was renewed.
According to official figures, Keenum is now being paid $822,523 per year. Other sources indicate that Dr. Glenn Boyce of the University of Mississippi has a salary that is roughly equivalent to Keenum’s, ranking them the highest of the well-paid Mississippi public university presidents. The galloping salaries of these administrators is something that has been noted for at least 20 years. It reflects not just the attitude of the board about those at the top, but the board’s attempt to control the institutions through well-paid presidents. The salaries of the faculties, who actually deliver the educational services, are nowhere on pace with the salaries of the administrators nor faculty members elsewhere. Thus, for the board, it is not a matter of paying educators fair salaries, it is a matter of paying the administrators to control the campuses.
Fortunately, last week’s actions did not reflect another raise in tuition and fees that happened during the board meetings this Spring. In a comparable action, however, the Board of Directors of the Office of Student Financial Aid recommended slashing the individual scholarship stipends for those in the Higher Education Legislative Plan, which is as negative as the periodic tuition raises. We raise it here because that board is made up of personnel from the Office of the State Institutions of Higher Learning, and it reflects that same kind of thinking.
In further belt-tightening at the institutional level, the college board voted to down-size Mississippi Valley State University (MVSU) through its degree offerings. It voted to eliminate the bachelors’ degrees in history, political science and government, and sociology, directing students instead through a Bachelor’s in Integrated Social Sciences. The combined/collapsed degree program will require students to take one writing course, one methods course, one seminar class in one of the three concentrations, and then a body of subject matter classes in that concentration. It reminds the writer of the social science degree program that was operating when he was a student at Jackson State University 60 years ago. That’s right, MVSU is being pushed back 60 years rather than being given the support that it needs to be productive and competitive in the modern academic world.
Dr. Mark Keenum’s raise represents the continued rewarding of those at the top; the down-sizing of MVSU’s programs represents the neglect of those at the bottom.
Similar actions can be observed at many of the board meetings. We note them at this point because they occurred on the same day and because the media made a big deal about Keenum’s long tenure.
The board’s acceptance of the list of legislative priorities from each university each year reflects the same continuing problem. Each year, the universities develop a list of projects to be submitted to the state legislature for the next year. The lists are scrutinized and approved by the board before they are sent to the legislature. What is noticeable about the lists is that those of the smaller universities are usually infinitesimally small, compared to the large universities. This year, for an example, Alcorn State University, including its agricultural programs, is seeking $30.16 million in such projects; Jackson State University is seeking $37.26 million; and MVSU is seeking $63.69 million. Those figures pale when it is realized that the system as a whole is seeking $482.9 billion. The matter is even more eye-opening when it is realized that often the projects requested by the historically Black universities remain on the lists year after year before they are funded or dropped from consideration. For an example, of the funds being sought by JSU, the $5 million addition for its school of education has been appearing on the priority list since shortly after the writer retired 14 years ago. The need is still there, but there is no assurance that it will be funded in 2022. The way in which the small institutions are treated reminds Ray Charles’ fans of the line in one of his songs wherein he says, “Them that’s got are them that gets and I ain’t got nothing yet.”
It is also significant that the annual Ayers Accountability Report was distributed at the meeting. That may be the last such report since the Ayers settlement has run its course. The reports continue to show, but not emphasize, that $34 million for a private endowment for Alcorn, JSU, and MVSU has not been provided. Also, the fact remains that the spirit of the Ayers settlement is being violated by the state pressuring JSU out of Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium.
One matter of importance to the Alcorn community that did not appear on the board’s agenda had to do with complaints against Alcorn’s president, Dr. Felecia Nave. Other sources reported on complaints. The Jackson Advocate also learned of the complaints from Alcorn alumni and faculty. It had been anticipated that there might be an entertainment of the matter in an executive session since there was a reported letter of no confidence sent to the board. As of this writing, however, there seems to have been no action on the matter. This is not totally surprising; in the past there, have been votes of no confidence taken at other universities, including Jackson State, Mississippi Valley State, and the University of Mississippi, with the board simply ignoring the votes. That, too, fits the pattern of those at the bottom being ignored.
We are aware that much of what is being reported here has been aired before, in principle if not in exact details. College board meetings are repetitious in the sense of the board acting the same way and on the same issues, year after year. Nevertheless, we feel obligated to repeat the facts here again, because if they are not reported, people can easily ignore them and let sleeping dogs lie, until it is too late and the damage is irreparable.