Miss. Colleges File Suit to Block University’s Expansion
HBCUs and community colleges may be hurt by University of Southern Mississippi expansion
JACKSON, Miss. — The state Board for Community and Junior Colleges, making good on an earlier threat, filed suit late last month to block a state university from expanding a branch campus along this state’s booming Gulf Coast.
The state’s 15 two-year colleges contend the University of Southern Mississippi’s plan to admit freshmen and sophomore students at its Gulf Park branch campus in the coastal city of Long Beach breaches a 1972 state law.
The suit was filed against the College Board, which oversees the state’s eight universities. Also named as plaintiffs in the case are community college students, alumni, faculty and presidents.
The legal action ends hope for a quick resolution of the controversy that has pitted two-year colleges against their four-year counterparts and politicians against the state’s power brokers.
“I think there will be a long court battle,” says Dr. Olon E. Ray, executive director of the two-year college board. “A long and drawn-out battle on the law that will take at least three years. We say they must obey the law.
“We do not fund the existing 15 community colleges at the level they should be,” he adds. “If we allow this precedent, they could start [new university] campuses all over the state.”
The crux of the community college officials’ case is that state law requires universities to first get approval from the two-year college board before offering lower-division courses at their branch campuses.
The state’s two-year college officials say the Gulf Park campus is unnecessary and duplicative because another state institution, Gulf Coast Community College, already offers similar courses in the area. They fear a repeat elsewhere in the state.
Also in the mix are Mississippi’s three historically Black colleges and a federal judge that oversees the long-running, higher education desegregation case. Plaintiffs in that case fear the expanded campus will siphon funds from the three black colleges.
They contend the expansion is a blatant example of how state leaders have thrown funds to everyone but the three historically Black institutions — Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley universities.
But the bottom line, according to the community college board’s suit, is that “this unauthorized and illegal course will in many ways usurp the responsibility of the public community and junior colleges of the state of Mississippi.”
The lawsuit, filed in Chancery Court in Hinds County, also contends that the Southern Miss expansion will hurt African American students at two-year colleges by draining money from programs that benefit them to fund the expansion.
Still unresolved is the troubling question of whether one state entity legally can sue another. State Attorney General Mike Moore, who has been trying to mediate the dispute, contends the answer is no.
The contentious issue goes back 26 years to when Gulf Park used to be a finishing school for girls. It was about to close when a private group bought the land and buildings and donated them to the state on the condition it open a branch campus.
Southern Miss has offered upper-division classes at the Long Beach facilities ever since. But as the population along the coast has risen, local residents and leaders have clamored for a four-year university of their own.
With the area’s population expected to balloon to 1 million by 2010, they contend that they have not had the same opportunities and access to higher education as residents in other parts of the state. The nearest public four-year university, Alcorn State, lies about 40 miles north of the coast.
“We are doing a poor job of educating the population,” says Ron Peresich, the leader of a private group called “Coast 21” that is pushing hard for the expansion. “Only 15.6 percent of the people in the seven coast counties have four-year degrees.
Coast 21, which has 21 members, is made up of a clique of well-connected bankers, mayors, state representatives and economic development officials from the seven-county Gulf Coast region.
“We have talked to Dr. Ray for years about alternatives,” says Peresich, a Biloxi attorney. “He is unwilling to do anything but have [Gulf Coast Community College] teach sophomore and freshman courses.
“We expect to win in court,” Peresich adds.
Still unresolved is where Southern Miss will get the estimated $2 million it needs for the expansion. The state Legislature did not set aside any money this year for the project.
Dr. Horace Fleming, Southern Mississippi’s president, says that lawmakers must soon authorize $2 million for the expansion or the project will be dead. “If we have the authority to go ahead and there’s no money, it’s not possible,” he says.
Pamela Meyer Smith, the state’s assistant commissioner of higher education, has estimated that the Legislature must appropriate at least $500,000 for faculty and facilities. She fears the expansion may be tied up in court for years because of the legal questions.
Dr. Clyde Muse, president of Hinds Community College, contends that if Southern Miss is permitted to proceed with the expansion, “it would be the first university created without legislative approval.”
Aside from the suit filed by the two-year college board, the expansion still could be blocked by plaintiffs in the higher education desegregation case. U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. initially issued a restraining order stopping the expansion.
The judge lifted that order last month, which could allow 750 freshman and sophomore students to enroll at the Gulf Park campus over the next five years. But the plaintiffs likely will appeal the judge’s decision.
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