Dr. Michael Forster

Climate change, health, and the mid-term elections

The political media-sphere is awash in speculation struggling to make sense of the Republican electoral rout this past week.  The political right, especially the “establishment” right, naturally figures it a vindication of relatively moderate, i.e. non-Tea Party, policy preferences for smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation, reduced social supports that “promote dependency,” etc.  Those leaning left are more likely to see more sinister forces at work – the distorting intrusion of “dark money,” negative voter ID impacts, superficial issue coverage by media, high voter alienation/low voter turnout.

Since speculation is the order of the moment, permit me to add my own to the pile.   Quite simply – The segment of the citizenry paying attention, and therefore most likely to trek to the polls to exercise the democratic privilege, is scared nearly senseless.  (It is alarming indeed to note how many of the voting-eligible – a majority in fact – seem not to be paying attention.  On Wednesday, I asked a number of students what they thought of the election outcome; the most common reaction was, “there was an election? – when”?)  And when you’re scared, you run for safety – or whatever looks like safety at the moment.

Since virtually every headline carries a heavy fright factor, there’s plenty to be scared of – from endless legislative gridlock, to ISIS beheadings and escalating U.S. war-making trying to contain a new surge of terrorism, to stubbornly persistent high unemployment and declining economic prospects for all but the top echelon of earners.  Even a drop in gasoline prices has an alarming underside – economic slowdown in the rest of the world, which will eventually boomerang our way.

But above all – and here’s the truly speculative part – I think most of all people are scared of the coming effects of climate change, whether they’re ready to admit it or not.   The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered the grim news last week that we’re dangerously close to exhausting our capacity to kick the climate change can down the road. And there are precious few encouraging signs that we’re ready to stop kicking. In fact, global emissions rose 2.3% to a record in 2013 – the biggest year-to-year change in three decades. At the same time, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Earth is headed for the hottest year ever recorded, and will reach the highest level of atmospheric carbon dioxide in 800,000 years.

By now, everyone paying attention knows that climate change does not mean we’re looking at just a few more days each summer running the AC on “high.” We’re looking at major, and in many instances irreversible, ecological disruptions of a wide variety – sea level rise sufficient to drown coastlines, mass species extinction, oceanic acidification, degradation of food crop growing conditions, and on and on. Much of the disruption, moreover, will spell grave human health threats – from killer heat waves and devastatingly destructive storms, to exhaustion of potable water supplies and new disease pandemics. Dengue fever and the Ebola virus, once confined to the tropics, are gaining footholds in the so-called temperate zones; these may be nothing more than the advance troops of a new army of sickening invaders.

So what does this have to do with a Republican sweep of the midterm elections? Call it a kind of political comfort food. The Republicans may be moving out of strict climate change denial, but they assure us that it really isn’t all that bad climate-wise, and that whatever problems we face can be solved by getting back to basics – free markets and free enterprise, individualism and self-reliance, perhaps gradually becoming ecologically “green” and sustainable, but only by squeezing more profits out of fossil fuel extraction – in short, by doubling down on what we’ve been doing for the past two centuries. Even if I have severe doubts that they’re right, I want to embrace that message; I like it a whole lot more than the distressingly disturbing message that I have to change my way of life, radically and permanently. So, instead: Spank the Democrats, put the Republicans in charge of two-thirds of the legislative process, and believe that things are bound to get better.

It’s a comforting notion, perhaps. Too bad it’s dead wrong.

Dr. Michael Forster

Between a rock and a hard place

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.

Katherine Nugent

New Academic Year

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.

Groundbreaking Ceremony

Dr. Michael Forster

And we’re off….

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.

Stay tuned.

Dr. Michael Forster

Gov. Bryant is right – More education means more jobs

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.