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Potter: Education is the most important investment

By By Georgia E. Frye / staff writer
July 13, 2003
David Potter said he believes education begins before kindergarten and lasts throughout life. He also said the biggest challenge universities face is students who aren't prepared for college work.
Potter took over this year as the commissioner of higher education. Before that, he served as president of Delta State University.
Potter met last week with The Meridian Star editorial board to explain his role as commissioner and to talk about the future of higher education in Mississippi.
The Meridian Star: Can you explain the role of the commissioner of higher education and how you work with the presidents of the eight state universities?
David Potter: Presidents have a good deal of autonomy. The (College Board) really puts its trust in the presidents to operate their university. They report directly to the board, as do I.
I really see my role as being responsible for coordinating and inspiring and cajoling and supporting the presidents in what they do. The commissioner … is the board's spokesperson and represents its perspective on things. I think I am kind of a broker between the board and the institutions.
The Star: What about your role in setting policy?
Potter: Well, hopefully, the board would look to the commissioner as someone who has had enough experience in higher education to be able to identify the issues that are salient and to the future of higher education. I think I need to be responsible for knowing what is going on nationally and how Mississippi fits into the national scene.
Then I raise policy issues with the board that they need to take into account and, hopefully, I can energize them to focus on those issues and work with the institutions to shape a policy.
The Star: What do you think about the Legislature funding education first this year?
Potter: It was a tremendous move on their part. Now the challenge is to keep them committed to doing that. I say a challenge because I think they realize that having done that they made a set of commitments that gave them less maneuverability at the end of the session that they typically have had.
We have been sort of the first discretionary pot of money to be able to go to if they needed to balance the budget at the end of the session. Having given us the money first, they had to scramble around for the money at the end to deal with other agencies that typically got it earlier than we did. But I think, symbolically, it was a very important statement by the Legislature about the importance of higher education and of education generally.
The Star: What do you do as commissioner to get Legislators to continue on that same path?
Potter: We worked very hard to try to build a coalition with the community colleges and the kindergarten through 12th-grade system. The more we can do together, the more the state understands that education is essentially a single system that begins before kindergarten and continues the rest of people's lives.
The transitions between those systems have to be effective for us to realize what the system can be. We really work hard to make the case that education is the most important investment that this state can make in its own future.
The Star: Are you concerned that in January, after new state and legislative leaders take office, education may be funded at the end of the session?
Potter: We need to be worried about that, and we are already talking across the three sectors about an education program that we would try to run this fall after the election to help the new legislators know that this is an issue of value to them.

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