7/24/09

Mississippi Higher Education in Trouble

The University of Southern Mississippi SealImage via Wikipedia

This rant has been brewing for some time now, but I can't say that I've gained much clarity or perspective yet. I'm still too mad. Maybe this will be cathartic, and if not, maybe it will at least be informative to others.

Higher education in the state of Mississippi has long been subpar and about to get worse as a result of sweeping budget cuts brought on by our faltering economy. Prior to the pending cuts, our plight was already notable.
  • Professors at Mississippi's public universities are paid less than the southeast regional average.
  • Mississippi universities are notorious for hiring their own graduates, a practice most universities avoid because in tends to prevent the infusion of new ideas.
  • Faculty at research-extensive universities have higher teaching loads than those at most research-extensive universities in other states.
  • Higher education is one of the last priorities for legislative funding in our state in that it is generally the last area of the budget to be considered.
  • Mississippi's universities routinely admit students who are ill-prepared for higher education and would never qualify for admission in other states.
  • Faculty and staff at Mississippi's public universities do not receive yearly cost-of-living increases in pay, a common practice in most other states.
Collectively, these factors produce low morale, frequent turnover, and impaired productivity among staff and faculty. Students suffer, and so do the communities which would benefit from what healthy universities offer. The economy of our state is affected, as employers who need educated employees are going to look elsewhere.

In this context, the University of Southern Mississippi has announced plans to cut an additional $10-$12 million. Because the university already operates on a shoestring budget and the IHL board will not allow a tuition increase, the only way to accomplish these cuts is to eliminate entire programs (including some undergraduate majors) and fire faculty and staff. Despite the positive spin university PR officials are going to try to put on this, the reality on the ground is that these cuts are going to devastate an already impaired system.

As we eagerly await economic recovery, we seem to be doing everything we can to postpone it. Gutting our universities is not going to make it any easier to improve Mississippi's economic plight; it will keep is stuck in this hole even longer. Anyone who wants to see Mississippi's economy improve should be demanding that our state legislature funds education in our state.

Some say that this is just a temporary fix and that any programs that are shut down now can simply be reopened once we are out of the recession. Unfortunately, that is not how it works. Effective programs take many years to build, and few accrediting bodies are going to want to take a chance on an institution with this sort of history. These decisions, once implemented, are not going to be easy to reverse.

The only conclusion I am able to draw from all of this is that education is not valued in the state of Mississippi. I suppose that should not come as much of a surprise. After all, a blog like this probably wouldn't be necessary in an area that was serious about education. But surprising or not, it still stings.

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