Commissioner of Higher Education Al Rankins spoke to Ole Miss students and faculty and Oxford residents at the Lyceum on Tuesday, where he answered questions on University culture, environment, finances and external relationships.
The commissioner’s open forum at Ole Miss was part of his “Listening Tour,” on which Rankins will visit public universities throughout the state. Rankins began the meeting with expressing great interest in hearing the community’s concerns and input about the university.
Rankins previously served as President of Alcorn State University is the first black higher education commissioner in the state’s history.
“I want to hear about the great things happening on campus, so I am excited to be here,” Rankins said. “I want to hear from the individuals, who are in the trenches working with students and I also want to hear from the members of the community who are directly affected by the University of Mississippi.”
Rankins said his main goal as commissioner is to focus on education attainment within the state of Mississippi.
“I think that is the key in solving many of the socio economic issues that we face in this state,” Rankins said. “It is key for our state moving forward.”
He discussed the characteristics of states with higher educated citizens, such as higher household incomes, better health and lower crime and incarceration rates. Rankins said the more that Mississippi citizens are educated, “our costs of prisons and Medicaid would go down.”
“If you look at infant mortality, its higher in the states that have the lowest percent of population that have at least a bachelor’s degree,” Rankins said.
The commissioner also said the IHL is trying to increase diversity in the eight public universities in the state.
“IHL and the board encourage diversity at every level, student diversity, employee diversity and all up the ladder,” he said.
Rankins said that although the IHL system doesn’t constitute that a university must enroll a specific number of students from certain ethnic groups, it does evaluate universities’ history and demographics. According to Rankins, three of the state’s institutions are historically black, and a fourth institution has a 40 percent black population.
“All of our universities, for the most part, are open enrollment and very low standard for admission for all our universities,” Rankins said. “So, we are hot access, we’re very affordable, so I think we are doing a good job at providing the opportunity for anyone who would like to attend.”
Rankins said he would advocate for more research and general funding for universities, but some of the funding decisions are beyond the authority of the Institutions of Higher Learning.
“Our role is to advocate to the legislature for continued or additional funding to support our campuses,” Rankins said. “The IHL does manage a few federal grants, but they are for specified purposes, which is beyond the authority of IHL.”
Rankins was asked if there is a correlation between the increased cost of living and faculty salaries. He explained that the IHL has provided guidelines for salary increases for employees that often include outside factors such as cost of living.
“In recent years, when additional funds were available, typically those guidelines talked about other factors but not the cost of living,” Rankins said.
He said the purpose behind these guidelines is not to be restrictive to what the campuses can do, but to provide chancellors and presidents political cover from outside of the university.
“The way the budget has been for several years now, there really hasn’t been any additional money to give the cost-of-living adjustments to everyone across the campus,” Rankins said.
Rankins said considering the way the IHL budget has been reduced in recent years, this has forced campuses to cut back on certain programs, so that they can pay their faculty and staff.