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Closures, mergers won't solve education problems

By Staff
Dec. 13, 2001
Members of the College Board have the same rights as other citizens to say whatever they think. However, one of our members, alone, has begun a campaign with the media contrary to official board positions.
As president of the board, I have a responsibility to respond. So, I use this letter as the means to respond to statements by Roy Klumb calling for the closure and/or merger of two of our universities. I also use it to make the public aware of steps the board is already taking to ensure efficiencies at all our institutions.
First, understand that the College Board has no authority whatsoever to close or merge any university. Authority to create, close, merge or otherwise change institutions is reserved to the Legislature.
The College Board has negotiated a long-awaited settlement of the Ayers case. Pending approval by a federal court, this settlement provides for strengthening and adding programs at our three historically black universities. Closure/merger of one of these, as proposed by Mr. Klumb, would trash this hard-sought settlement. The board opposes such closure or merger and favors the settlement agreement.
The University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University have initiated discussions with the College Board to limit freshman enrollments at each institution. They have reached full capacity, they say. Meanwhile, overall enrollment at our universities increases every year. If we should freeze freshman enrollment at two of our largest universities (the board has yet to take this matter up), the remaining six would be needed to handle all future growth.
Tough budget times
This closure/merger idea always pops up during tough budget times. Yet, those who propose it seldom take the time to understand that closure/merger saves no money in the short run. In fact, it would increase costs because you must cover both the shut-down costs at the to-be-closed/merged institutions while at the same time covering the expansion costs at the to-be-kept institutions … the students from the merged/closed institutions must go somewhere.
Closure/merger might make sense as part of a long-term rearrangement of higher education, but never as a short-term solution to budget shortfalls.
Seven members of the College Board were appointed by Gov. Kirk Fordice, five by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. Working together, all these members are committed to addressing efficiencies at our existing eight institutions, forthrightly and effectively.
We are in the midst of a multi-year effort to get our institutions to better focus their missions and thereby their programs. We are right now identifying "key indicators" that will help us monitor performance at each institution.
Earlier this year I appointed an "efficiencies" task force to find opportunities for efficiencies in "backshop" operations. Recommendations are forthcoming in the areas of purchasing, computer operations, and management systems … and the latest hot topic, cell phones.
Red flags
We are moving to strengthen our already-in-place process to "red flag" programs with low productivity.
While we expect our institutions to be efficient, we also expect them to continuously improve what they do. All of our institutions have shown improvement over the past several years. It is important to keep this momentum going even in the face of tough budget cuts.
I say to Mr. Klumb and to all Mississippians that Mississippi is a state that needs more university graduates, not fewer, if we are to compete in this 21st century economy. We need to be talking about how to increase our commitment to higher education, not how to reduce it. We need to be applauding the good efforts all our institutions make to be efficient and use tax and tuition dollars prudently, not inferring poor management through talk of closure and merger.
Your College Board is on track to do just this. And, you should feel good about that.
Bill Crawford of Meridian is president of the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning