Nora Miller knows the challenges universities face today.
When she first became president of Mississippi University for Women, Miller attended what she called a “boot camp” for new university presidents hosted by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, she told members of the Columbus Exchange Club during her presentation at their weekly meeting at Lion Hills Center Thursday. There she met other university presidents from all over the country.
“As we got to talking, we realized we were facing all pretty much the same issues,” Miller said. “There is public questioning of the value of higher education. A lot of that is driven by the concern about student debt. We’re all facing less support from our states. We know the demographics are going down, the number of 18-year-olds. People are having fewer babies. There is going to be a decline in the number of high school graduates, not because of anything educationally. It’s simply fewer babies were born that many years ago.”
With these challenges in mind, Miller said she thinks The W is doing pretty well, despite decreases in state appropriations and a faculty she says is underpaid.
In 2000, Miller said, 56 percent of The W’s budget came from state appropriations, and 32 percent from student tuition. The remaining comes from private donations, grants and other funding sources like sales and services. This year, only 40 percent comes from state appropriations and student tuition shoulders 55 percent.
That still is better than the average among the eight universities under the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning — 28 percent from the state and 67 percent from tuition.
“Twenty years later, we have flipped … and we don’t see that trend reversing,” she said.
But The W still has the second lowest tuition of public universities in the state, with students paying about $15,000 a year for tuition, room and board. Of the students who graduate with student loan debt, that debt is about $29,393 on average.
“When you consider the fact that a mid-size car or truck costs about $30,000, they don’t think anything of putting down money for that,” she said. “Ten years later it’s not worth anything. A college education gives back for a lifetime. It’s still the best investment anybody can make. The most expensive one is one with a student who doesn’t complete with a degree.”
Miller said many faculty members haven’t received raises in four or five years. The Chronicle of Higher Education has listed The W as one of the best universities to work for seven years in a row now, Miller said. Additionally 67 percent of faculty and staff donate to the MUW Foundation — significantly higher than the national average of 20 percent of faculty and staff donating to their institutions.
Miller told The Dispatch Friday that IHL has asked for funding that would see about a 6 percent raise for faculty over six years. She doesn’t know, however, if the Legislature will fund all of that.
“Hopefully we’ll get something for faculty, and we’ll have to do something else to generate funds to compensate staff,” she said. “It will probably have to be in the form of a tuition increase.”
The average salary for a faculty member is about $55,905, she said, though that varies pretty widely between disciplines.
In answer to a question from one Exchange member, Miller said that while the emphasis being put on technical degrees and skills is important, the need for individuals with college degrees and liberal arts educations will not go away.
“It’s true. We need plumbers. We need bricklayers. We need all of that,” Miller said. “But the beauty of a university degree and of a liberal arts degree — and all of our students, even if they’re in nursing or professional program, they’re still getting a strong liberal arts basis — those are the people who solve problems. Those are the people who have learned how to learn. … You can learn how to fix a widget, whatever, but 15 years from now, there’s going to be a computer doing that and you’ve got to have somebody who’s going to be telling the computer how to do it. So you’ve got to have problem solvers. A liberal arts education, a university education — those are the people who are going to be fixing things for us in the future.”
During her presentation, Miller also gave updates on projects — including a planned $5 million baseball field including, she hopes, a fence surrounding it to keep errant balls from flying into nearby houses.
Currently, she said, the baseball team is playing on Columbus High School’s baseball field, which cuts down on students attending games and could potentially deter recruitment for players — though, she added, since the baseball team went to the Small College World Series last year, it’s not hurting the program too badly.
A more immediate project is a new building for The W’s growing culinary program. There is currently $6.6 million set aside for construction, and Miller plans to ask the state Legislature for another $9 million. If they get it, she said, construction can begin on that project in about a year.
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