University presidents: Future of Mississippi is at stake

Posted on Jan 23 2018 - 8:59am by Adam Ganucheau and Kayleigh Skinner

This article was originally published by Mississippi Today.

JACKSON — Presidents from all eight public universities made a sobering plea to lawmakers Monday: For the sake of Mississippi’s future and students paying tuition, we need more money.

“We’re getting to the point there’s really a danger if you go beyond this,” said Jeffrey Vitter, chancellor of the University of Mississippi. “If you don’t reinforce the budgets, there’s a lot at stake – really the future of Mississippi.”

The presidents asked for an $85 million, or 14 percent, budget increase for next fiscal year. That is a massive ask considering the Joint Legislative Budget Committee’s recommendation that universities receive a $19 million cut next year.

Several presidents said that if the Legislature’s proposed budget cuts were implemented, they would have to raise tuition rates. And, the presidents said, more budget cuts would lessen the chances of attracting and retaining faculty.

“It’s so much more expensive to rebuild than to maintain,” Vitter said.

The bleak outlook presented by the university presidents mirrors what several agency and department directors have asked for and will continue seeking for next fiscal year. Lawmakers, however, are generally constrained to spending what the state collects in revenue.

Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, the chairman of the IHL appropriations subcommittee, said after the meeting that the presidents had made clear the role their universities play in building the future of Mississippi.

“I’m hopeful that this year is not going to be anywhere like (previous years) and we’re going to have a rosier outlook,” Hopson said. “It’s about economics, research, and the future of our state.”

In the past three fiscal years, the Institutes for Higher Learning have taken big budget cuts. In fiscal year 2016, legislators budgeted $773 million for university spending. By the end of that fiscal year, mid-year budget cuts due to dwindling revenues had lowered their total expenditures to $757 million.

In fiscal year 2017, universities budgeted to spend $748 million. By the end of that fiscal year, though, mid-year budget cuts had lowered the total expenditures to $702 million.

In the current fiscal year 2018, lawmakers appropriated $667 million for universities to spend. So far, mid-year budget cuts have not been necessary, but universities have scrambled to make the appropriations work.

IHL Commissioner Glenn Boyce stressed how difficult it is to compete with surrounding states, pointing out to the House appropriations committee that Tennessee and Alabama pay roughly 97 percent of the Southern Regional Education Board average salary for a four year institution, whereas Mississippi pays 79.6 percent.

“I want to stop and make a point there because several of our schools are within 90 miles of the University of Alabama,” Boyce said. “It’s a tough situation when you have a great faculty member who can drive 90 miles, land in a new place, and get a 19 percent raise. That’s incredibly challenging to keep your faculty at home.”

“We’re in our second year of no pay raises,” said Mark Keenum, president of Mississippi State University. “The thought of doing it for a third year is really going to be devastating to us.”

“We offer a great bargain for our students, but no one likes to raise tuition,” Keenum said. “What are our alternatives if we don’t get any additional funding (from the Legislature)?”

In the House, Rep. Nolan Mettetal, R-Sardis, told the higher education leaders the situation was one that may warrant dipping into the Rainy Day Fund to offset funding woes.

“Certainly, this is one time that I would support that effort should our leadership desire to move in that direction,” Mettetal said. “We’re embarrassed that we’re not able to provide additional funds to these people that are doing such an incredible job for Mississippians.”

Mississippi Valley State University President Jerryl Briggs said his university could lose accreditation due in part to state budget cuts. He also mentioned to lawmakers that the $6.7 million phase out of the Ayers settlement presents a “double whammy” for his university’s budget. The Ayers case was a federal desegregation lawsuit settled by the plaintiffs and the state with the state committing to additional funding for the state’s three historically black institutions of higher learning. That special funding ends soon.

The University of Mississippi Medical Center has already laid off staffers due to state budget cuts. The state’s only academic medical center opened a new School of Medicine last year in hopes to help combat a shortage of physicians in the state.

Other specific budget problems mentioned by the presidents Monday include their ability to attract high school and community college students to the four-year institutions; the ability to compete for research grants with universities outside the state and region; the ability to maintain the university’s capital and infrastructure; and the loss in accreditation and dip in national rankings.

The legislative budget committee’s recommendation – which is just that, until final appropriations bills are passed in March – is bleak for most state agencies, which are already reeling from several planned and unexpected budget cuts the past three fiscal years.

Agency heads, like the university presidents, will have ample opportunity to plead their cases before appropriations committee and sub-committee members make final decisions in coming weeks. High-powered lobbyists and legislative liaisons will certainly have some say in final spending totals.

The Legislature’s recommendation calls for total general fund spending of $5.5 billion – a 1.2 percent reduction in expected spending for the current fiscal year. The proposed budget would set aside 2 percent of revenues in the state’s emergency fund to deal with unexpected budget shortfalls.

Just five general fund agencies or departments would receive year-over-year increases in the recommendation, while 68 agencies or departments would receive cuts.

“Our deepest concern in that as these issues compound, we are faced with at least two alarming realities: The need for even more appropriation of resources to restore our institutions back to a baseline place of competitiveness,” said Rodney Bennett, president of the University of Southern Mississippi.

“Secondly, a sharp decline in our ability to attract experienced, talented faculty, staff and administrators who would be willing to come to Mississippi to do the work of rebuilding, which will likely take decades,” Bennett said.