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Keenum: State is short-sighted in failing to invest in higher education


Mississippi State University president Mark Keenum speaks on higher education during Rotary at Lion Hills in Columbus Tuesday.

Mississippi State University president Mark Keenum speaks on higher education during Rotary at Lion Hills in Columbus Tuesday. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff


Slim Smith



Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum divided most of his speaking time at Tuesday's Columbus Rotary Club between looking back at the first technological revolution and the one he feels lies just ahead. 


But his most pointed comments were very much on the here and now, chastising the state for not sufficiently funding higher education at a time when both the challenges and opportunities facing the state's universities are at their highest. 


"In the eight years I've been at Mississippi State, there's only been one year that we didn't have a cut in (state) funding," Keenum said. "And the one year we weren't cut, we didn't get an increase that year. We just didn't get a cut." 


Keenum compared those reductions in higher education funding to another growing concern in the state. 


"Our highways, bridges and roadways are deteriorating because the public sector hasn't done enough to keep them in good condition," Keenum said. "The public sector didn't make the necessary investment, and now we are seeing the result of that. 


"I argue the same thing is true for higher education," he added. "If we can't provide a base level of support for our public universities, we'll see them start to deteriorate. We can't allow that. It's too important to our future." 


Noting the presence of four area high school students who spoke earlier as part of the Rotary-supported Lowndes Young Leaders program, Keenum noted that he spends a lot of time traveling the state talking to high school seniors about their future and how MSU can play a role in those plans. 


"When I think about these young people, I think of them as being part of the internet generation," Keenum said. 


Turning to the students, he said, "No one at this table knows life without the internet. They've never lived in a world that wasn't connected, even though the internet has only been widely available since 1994. Then, there is this," he said, holding up a smartphone. "There is more computing power in this than Neal Armstrong had when he went to the moon." 


Noting the wave of innovation that faced students 100 years ago, Keenum said today's teens are at the precipice of an even bigger, faster technological revolution. 


"For all that we have seen over the past 10, 20 years, we haven't even scratched the surface," he said. "The big high-tech companies are spending insane amounts of money on new product technology. Between 2016 and 2020, these companies are expecting to spend $20 trillion on the next 'gee whiz' technology. That's hard for me to even imagine." 


Keenum said MSU has played a leading role in much of that research, noting the university is a national leader in unmanned aircraft research and helping manufacturing as it advances its automation and robotics programs. MSU is also playing a leading research role in developing solutions to world hunger, which Keenum said will only increase in the coming year as the world population swells, mostly in undeveloped countries. 


Keenum said the advancing technology will demand the next generation of workers be better educated. It's a particular challenge for Mississippi, he said. 


"When you think about where we are headed as a state, all revenues are down for the last six months. Our economy is not growing. We've got to change that," he said. "The only way is education. Mississippi has got to have more college graduates than we have to do. The jobs demand that. If you're going to attract new industry and grow our economy, we have to have a good, educated workforce." 


Keenum said he fears state leaders are short-sighted in budgeting as the new technological boom approaches. 


"The best use of tax dollars is to invest it in our higher eduction system," he said. "We have some real challenges and some real opportunities, and I'm proud to work with the state's other institutions to meet those challenges and prepare our kids for those opportunities. But we can't do it without support from the public sector."


Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]



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