OPINION: SB 2726 continues the war against historically Black and small public colleges

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It needs to be dead and done! 

On Wednesday, February 21 at 1:45 p.m., Senator John Polk of Hattiesburg filed a bill now identified as Senate Bill 2726, which poses a serious threat to higher education in Mississippi. If the bill is passed by the legislature and signed into law, it would require the Office of State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) to close three of Mississippi’s universities by June 30, 2028, with an announcement of such pending action being made by June 30, 2025.

Although the bill does not specify the three institutions targeted by the senator, it has language that suggests which ones should and should not be closed and the language is buttressed by similar proposals in the past. The bill states that enrollment data, degrees offered, and economic impact should be factors considered in making the closure decision. It also mentions the services which the universities provide, including medical, agricultural research, and engineering, as things to consider. Taken together, the criteria clearly point to Mississippi Valley State University and Mississippi University for Women as targets. (Alcorn State, Delta State, or Jackson State would be the third university.) The bill provides for listening sessions on each campus before the closure. It allows for the sell or other types of transfers of property of the closed universities and for their research institutes to be taken over by the remaining institutions.

As the bill, SB 2726, is being decided upon, several things should be clearly understood.

(1) Regardless of the institutions being targeted or considered, Mississippi does not need to close any. Compared to the other southern states – from Texas to North Carolina – Mississippi has the smallest number of public universities. The number of universities must be taken into account as one realizes that this state ranks 50th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, when it comes to the percentage of residents who are college graduates. This means that we need more, not fewer universities. The bogus idea that the state has too many universities arose as the Ayers case was being debated in the Supreme Court in 1991 and as opinions were being spread via local mainstream media by racist writers who did not like the idea of there being three historically Black universities in the state. Again, considering its educational ranking and compared to its neighbors, Mississippi needs more rather than fewer universities. 

(2) Of the state’s eight universities, Alcorn, Delta State, Jackson State, Mississippi University for Women, and Mississippi Valley State University have never been funded as universities. They have just been four-year institutions with the title, university. (Maybe Senator Polk desires to see the day when the so-called regional universities are no longer considered universities and are perhaps under the jurisdiction of the so-called comprehensive universities. That is something that was proposed under former commissioner W. Ray Cleere and several times since.) 

(3) As the demand for college education has grown, Blacks and other students from working class families have found it increasingly difficult to pay the rising tuition and fees needed to gain a college education. Closing some of the institutions that have tried to make college more affordable exacerbates the problem, freezing out many such students.

As SB 2726 is being proposed, one has to wonder why it is being proposed at this time. It does not appear that IHL, the supervising body, is seeking to reduce the number of institutions. Is the idea of closing three institutions a brain child of the American Legislative Exchange Council and will therefore make the rounds in other conservative states? Is it an attempt on the part of Polk to make a name for himself for re-election or for higher office? Or, is it simply the re-hashing or an age-old dream when Blacks, women, and poor people were expected to stay in their places? Regardless of the origin of the proposal, it smacks of ignorance and arrogance, if not outright racism and classism. 

Citizens would do well to inform and lobby their legislators to defeat the bill in the committee and on the floor; to swamp the Senate Universities and Colleges Committee as that committee considers the bill so that hopefully it dies in the committee; and to monitor the process as the Senate debates and votes on it, if it gets to the floor. It is past time for the faculties, students, and alumni at all of the public universities to organize against such bills now and in the future. They are not competitors in some game of I-win, You-lose, but an intellectual fraternity for the future of this state. Whoever is not picked off now will have fewer sisters and brothers to assist them when it’s their turn to face the grim reaper. 

Mississippi needs all eight of its public universities. It cannot afford to buy into the anti-education bias that was existent when the 1890 Constitutional Convention set out to overturn what had been ratified in the 1868 Constitution nor can it afford to buy into the hysteria that arose over de-segregation in 1954 (Brown vs. Board of Education), 1962 (Meredith’s admission to Ole Miss), and 1970 (Alexander vs. Holmes County). It cannot afford to buy into the continuing battle to cripple, if not outright destroy, any effort to adequately fund Alcorn, Jackson State, MUW, Delta State, and Mississippi Valley State University, along with Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and USM. Ideas such as those proposed by Polk need to be buried immediately and this time deep enough for the burial to be permanent.

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OPINION: SB 2726 continues the war against historically Black and small public colleges

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
March 4, 2024