A Forum by J.P. 'PAT' SMITH: If Hattiesburg now makes all the decisions, is USM still the right answer for the Coast?

A Sun Herald ForumJuly 12, 2014 

From the perspective of the needs of almost 400,000 Coast citizens, University of Southern Mississippi President Rodney Bennett's recent transfer of all USM Gulf Coast budgets and decision-making authority to mid-level managers in Hattiesburg represents a serious setback in the 42-year Coast struggle for a comprehensive university campus. The move effectively repudiates USM's 1998 Dual Campus pledge to build an equal partner on the Coast.

Thus, in a June 7 Hattiesburg American article, one of the Coast's most stalwart higher education champions pronounced USM guilty of an historic breach of trust with Coast leaders. Citing her own 24 years of legislative struggles against Hattiesburg-based bureaucratic subterfuge, former state Rep. Diane Peranich argued the "abused" USM Coast operations should be put up for adoption by Mississippi State University.

Whether or not Mississippi State is the best solution, many long-serving USM Gulf Coast faculty and staff would privately agree that where the Coast operation is concerned, USM's Hattiesburg leadership has lost its vision and lost its way. Where Coast demographics point to the potential for 6,000 students, the resistance or outright refusal of 20 Hattiesburg departments to offer needed bachelor's programs has left USM Gulf Coast stuck at an enrollment of 3,000.

No one at USM has been able to explain how the unprecedented transfer of authority from the Coast Vice President to a bevy of mid-level Hattiesburg administrators can work to grow the Coast student base.

The decision placated a group of shortsighted Hattiesburg bureaucrats who for six months had besieged a young president with demands that they be given control of all tuition and other revenues generated by the USM Gulf Coast operation. But it ignored critical Coast history and needs.

Twelve years ago, the Mississippi Supreme Court removed the last legal barriers to President Horace Fleming's 1998 Dual Campus expansion plan for USM Gulf Coast. In public statements, USM and the IHL Board promised the community that through the new "Dual Campus structure," USM Gulf Coast would be "on a par" with -- and an equal partner to -- the Hattiesburg campus. The Dual Campus Plan was USM's response to a $250,000 study which demonstrated the Coast's acute need for expanded higher education access.

Over the previous 25 years, Coast leaders had worked to remove killer constraints from USM Coast operations, including rules preventing veterans (and others) from taking full loads at Gulf Park, and rules forbidding daytime classes and freshman-sophomore instruction. Moreover, for 25 years USM refused to allot bond money to construct new buildings for its Coast operations.

Thus, in one of the community input sessions which led up to the Dual Campus Plan, former Biloxi Mayor Gerald Blessey contended "if the home base is Hattiesburg, we will forever be in second place."

In response, USM officials argued the proposed Dual Campus mechanisms of an empowered cabinet-level vice president for USM Gulf Coast working through the vehicle of "site-based accreditation" would ensure that Coast needs could be met "aggressively ... and in a spirit of cooperation."

The Coast Chamber, the Coast Council of Governments, the Coast Economic Development Council and Coast 21 soon threw their support behind the Dual Campus Plan. In an unprecedented move, the Harrison County Board of Supervisors and five Coast municipalities pledged $2 million in matching money for new facilities.

Meanwhile, Coast legislators built the clout to outmaneuver continuing Hattiesburg resistance to bond money for Coast buildings.

Beyond this impressive community buy-in, the state IHL Board financed an expensive legal defense of the Dual Campus Plan which was upheld in two anti-expansion lawsuits filed in federal and state courts.

However, just before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Coast campuses in 2005, a new president, Shelby F. Thames, quietly downgraded the office of vice president for USM Gulf Coast to a non-cabinet associate provost position and derailed site-based accreditation.

When President Martha Saunders replaced Thames, she found campus disaster recovery stalled and Coast faculty demoralized but united in a demand for restoration of an empowered cabinet-level Coast vice presidency.

After its restoration in 2010, the office proved its worth. Dr. Francis Lucas refocused Katrina-recovery efforts and took up a successful cabinet-level battle against proposed budget cuts that were grossly unfair to the Coast.

Ironically, success in protecting Coast budgets generated the Hattiesburg-based bureaucratic backlash that has now succeeded in once again stripping the Coast CEO of all authority.

That the USM Dual Campus Plan could be unilaterally cast aside after such gargantuan local efforts should be unacceptable. It is this history of unreliable partnership which drives some to advocate shifting the Coast branch campus to Mississippi State's management.

Of three possible solutions, none is easy. Certainly Peranich would agree a Mississippi State-Gulf Coast alliance would need lengthy negotiation and ironclad protections, including site-based accreditation.

Other Coast leaders suggest that it's time to cut our losses and create our own University of the Gulf Coast. However, county funding would likely be needed to substitute for state backing, as a ninth public university would encounter strong state-level opposition -- at least initially.

On the other hand, President Bennett might still be brought back to an acceptable USM answer. Horace Fleming's 1998 Dual Campus Plan had real genius and beauty in its conception. Through an empowered Coast CEO and site-based accreditation it offered a pathway to an equal Coast-Hattiesburg partnership.

Nonetheless, countering Hattiesburg's ingrained habits of bureaucratic resistance would in itself require focused and sustained pressure from aroused Coast civic and business leaders.

Given the fact that the Coast college graduation percentages continue to lag significantly behind metro areas across the South with whom we compete, Coast leaders must act now to counter USM's backsliding.

Silence will mean that 20 years hence, we will be having the same conversation about Hattiesburg's resistance to meeting our needs. Meanwhile, a good portion of another generation's potential for lifting this community by its bootstraps will have been lost.

James Patterson 'Pat' Smith, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of history at USM Gulf Coast. He retired in May after 30 years of teaching at USM. He and his wife have endowed a scholarship at USM Gulf Coast.

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