The formula is easy enough to endorse in the abstract – “Balance the budget in line with priorities.” The problem is that even academics – and especially academic administrators – don’t live in a world of abstractions. They live with the concrete, day to day realities of teaching and graduating students, recruiting and developing faculty, conducting research and disseminating findings, and carrying on the indispensable grind of university governance.
USM – starting at the top and filtering steadily outward from the “Dome” – must now come to grips with a sobering new reality of shrinking revenues, largely the result of flagging enrollment, and escalating costs over which it has scarce control. Budget challenges, of course, are far from “new” to Southern Miss. As dean I’ve experienced seven budget cycles, four of them marked by cuts. But the past couple of years have seemed remarkably stable, encouraging belief that the bad days were all behind us, and even hope that historical budget problems could be corrected. If only it were so.
An attractive option under conditions of financial duress is to spread the pain as evenly as possible. Everyone, including Academic Affairs (i.e. mainly, if not only, the colleges and departments) must shoulder their share. After all, as an organization we sink or swim together, so it seems only fair. Moreover, Academic Affairs, home of all the faculty ranks and their supporting staff, is where most of the money resides.
But here’s where the “rock and a hard place” component kicks in, with a vengeance. Academic Affairs is, simultaneously, the primary “cost center” and the principal economic driver of the institution, which increasingly depends on tuition revenue for its survival. Cut too much, or too incautiously, from Academic Affairs and you risk losing your life blood – which is, at once, our lifeline to the future.
Once again, it is the beginning of a new academic year at The University of Southern Mississippi and the College of Nursing. We had a busy summer school session with a very large enrollment in our nursing programs. Even though we barely had time to catch our breath from the end of the summer term to the beginning of the fall term, we are excited and prepared to begin the new academic year.
This summer, work began on preparing the site for construction of our new College of Nursing building. On September 17th, at 10:00 AM the formal ground breaking ceremony for Asbury Hall will occur. We are so grateful to all the donors who have invested in the College’s future and made this dream a reality. This past July, through a competitive grant process, we received over a million dollars to implement an accelerated baccalaureate program for Veterans. The program is designed to provide academic credit for previous medical experience and training and provide a mechanism for removing barriers that impede our veterans from obtaining a baccalaureate degree.
Another new program that is being implemented is a new leadership tract for the BSN graduate that will culminate in a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. This program is offered in collaboration with the College of Business who developed a business certificate that will enhance the competencies of the graduates in their administrative positions.
So, we enter the new academic year anticipating the opportunities that will advance our vision, Breaking New Ground; Transforming Health Care.
Wow, who stole summer? That is, what became of the abundant “free time” imagined available for making tremendous headway on all those projects there just wasn’t time for in the regular term? It somehow evaporated in the sizzling Mississippi heat, it seems….
Now the first semester of the new academic year is off and running, coming out of the blocks at breakneck speed. Classes kicked in Wednesday, and suddenly it seems that every classroom seat and every parking slot is filled (a very good thing for an institution evermore dependent on tuition revenue!). Grabbing a “quick” coffee at Starbucks is a rapidly receding summertime memory.
2014-2015 promises to be a huge year for CoH. I look forward to substantial enrollment growth (including at the newly invigorated Gulf Park campus), completion of key leadership and other faculty searches, important new research and service initiatives, and detailed planning for the renovation of Joseph Greene Hall to accommodate many (though far from all) CoH programs after our colleagues in College of Business depart for their brand spanking new digs in Scianna Hall.
Today’s Clarion-Ledger carries the distressing story that Mississippi’s jobless rate – an official 7.9% in June, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor – is the worst in the nation. The Magnolia State stands atop a “bad” list once again (sigh).
Asked to comment, Gov. Bryant explained that Mississippi’s economy is improving, just not as fast as the rest of the country (or as fast as he would like). Going to the cause of the state’s sluggish progress, the governor got it exactly right – education, or lack thereof, is the key factor hampering improvement. Mississippi suffers from too many dropouts and too much misdirected education. “We haven’t done as good a job as we should training workers for the future,” said Bryant.
While I prefer “education” over “training,” I think the governor is dead on in his assessment. Mississippi will forever bring up the national rear in employment – and likely every other indicator of well-being – until it does a significantly better job educating its citizens. Preparing workers of the future requires excellent education across the educational spectrum – pre-K – 12, community college, baccalaureate and graduate education included.
Lacking universal pre-K, Mississippi can’t at present even boast of a comprehensive system. Too many K-12 systems, further, are on life support (another news item informs that the state may soon take over malfunctioning Greenwood schools), and do a poor job preparing students for advanced education and training. Community colleges and four-year universities continue to struggle with declining state support and rising tuitions that price low-income students out of the educational market.
To get ahead, Mississippi will need to invest seriously in education – most notably in securing and retaining excellent faculty, and in maintaining state-of-the-art facilities for teaching and research. It’s not all about money per se; to be sure there are opportunities to streamline and to improve integration across the system spectrum. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think we can boost the employment prospects of most Mississippians without a major leap in the level of our financial commitment to education.
Each year, the College of Arts and Letters provides instruction to approximately 3,000 majors and delivers a significant portion of the general education courses to all undergraduates at The University of Southern Mississippi. Across the college we enroll students of all ages, backgrounds, and levels of academic preparation. Most of our students are seeking enhanced skills or college degrees that will prepare them for well-paying jobs. Our mission is to prepare these students, not for their first jobs, but for their careers—where success is measured by the ability to think critically as a problem-solver and communicate effectively through written and spoken words. To achieve this, we nurture in them an understanding of lessons of the past, an appreciation for the richness of difference, an awareness of the challenges we face now, and an understanding of the skills they will need to adapt in the future.
We stand at a pivotal moment in the history of the college, as well as the institution and the state as a whole. A growing body of research has documented a national decline in educational attainment at the very time when our economic competitiveness in Mississippi and across the region is increasingly tied to a well-educated citizenry. So, we’ve begun a journey to redefine our roles as agents of transformative learning, with proactive and intentional strategies that encourage students of all backgrounds and all learning styles to be successful in the classroom, and in life. We are transforming our story—a story told in every department, in every school, for every student, regardless of their background or educational goals. That story is one of access, support, guidance, and personal and academic success in which students leave us well-prepared for their futures. The faculty has risen to meet the challenge of a changing student landscape: technology has presented great benefits and unforeseen challenges, and the average student can be both underprepared and cutting-edge. Undergraduate success initiatives, fully underway, provide a level of access and support never before presented in such a consistent, integrative fashion. Undergraduate research is now common among all our disciplines, and faculty mentoring is a fundamental tenet of our way of doing business.
Our focus has moved to better connect courses with educational goals and, therefore, provide a clearer path to completion. We are reaching out to students who stumble well before it is too late, and they fail. And we are adapting to the changing landscape of student readiness without sacrificing standards or rigor.
Take a moment to review the work of our faculty and students here.