Mississippi's public universities: Should we change the IHL governance structure?

By Mississippi Center for Public Policy
February 6, 2020

Should Mississippi continue to have one governing body over all state universities or are better options available that would be more responsive to local communities?

The Mississippi Center for Public Policy released a study today that analyzes higher education in the state of Mississippi. “Southern Exposure, A Look at Mississippi’s Public Colleges and Universities,” a report produced by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, takes a detailed look at the eight, public, four-year, undergraduate institutions in Mississippi on issues ranging from governance to curriculum.

“At a time when colleges and universities across the country are facing a variety of headwinds, much of their own making, there is no better time for Mississippi to take stock of how we’re doing. When we value something, we owe it to ourselves to give it a full examination so that we might improve it for the next generation,” said Jon Pritchett, CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.

“Mississippi is a proud state with much to offer our nation. University leadership faces the ongoing challenge of providing the finest education at the most affordable price, if the state is to realize its full potential. We hope that our report will help the Mississippi system optimize its crucial mission to prepare students for the demands of global competition, dynamic job markets, and informed citizenship,” said ACTA President, Dr. Michael Poliakoff.

In Mississippi, there is a single governing Board of Trustees for the State Institutions of Higher Learning, or IHL. While they have many responsibilities, one of the most important tasks that they can undertake is selecting a new president or chancellor. Last fall, the IHL came under fire for the lack of transparency surrounding the selection of Dr. Glenn Boyce as the new chancellor at Ole Miss, someone who was initially hired to conduct the presidential search. 

Many began to wonder if this is a decision that could be made closer to home.

While Mississippi has a consolidated university system model, other options include the “one board, one institution” model where each institution has their own board of trustees or the “nested board governance model” where a system-level board of governors share responsibility with a campus-level board. 

Local boards would be quicker to respond to market forces. 

But transparency is an issue beyond the selection of a president. A review of the minutes from board meetings between May 2017 through June 2019 found that only three of the more than 500 votes were non-unanimous. 

This may be the result of groupthink, where the board accepts almost any proposal laid before them or where every new initiative proposed by administrators is approved. Or, there may have been debate that is not reflected in the minutes, which raises an additional set of concerns about transparency and public accountability. 

“Transparency is an essential part of good governance, and when trustees are making decisions, some of which necessarily will be controversial, the record of their debates needs to be available to the public whom the board ultimately serves,” the report reads.

Along with governance, the report also measures academic strength, intellectual diversity, and cost and effectiveness. Key findings from the report includes:

  • Graduation rates among several IHL universities are unacceptably low. 
  • Athletic expenditures at the Ole Miss and Mississippi State University have skyrocketed, outpacing many schools throughout the nation. Some of Mississippi’s smaller schools have tried to keep pace, passing on these costs to their students. 
  • No school in Mississippi currently requires all its students to complete a course in American government or history. This deficit inevitably diminishes graduates’ ability to participate effectively in our democratic republic. 
  • Although free speech policies at most Mississippi universities are appropriate, this is not the case at Ole Miss. They have a Bias Incident Response Team with highly disturbing implications for freedom of expression and the due process rights of students. 
  • None of the IHL schools have yet adopted the Chicago Principles, a commitment to the importance of the unfettered and unobstructed pursuit of truth and knowledge as the defining value of a college or university. The Chicago Principles are widely seen as the gold standard for protecting free inquiry and free expression on college campuses, and Mississippi needs to join other eminent universities and university systems that have made this important public commitment. 

Pritchett added, “We regard higher education as a significant issue in public policy. An awful lot of taxpayer money gets appropriated towards it and a large amount of family household expense can be tied to college tuition and expenses. That’s why we are delighted the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the nation’s leader in such matters, will be here in Jackson to share the results of this non-partisan examination.”

The full report can be found here.


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