December 20, 2011 1:48:00 PM
By JACK ELLIOTT JR.
JACKSON -- One higher education leader says Mississippi's universities could expect dividends from getting more involved in economic development and job training.
University of Southern Mississippi President Martha Saunders said in an interview with The Associated Press that USM is working with local and state agencies to recruit new industries and expand existing ones.
USM has several programs with potential to help in job creation, including a nationally recognized polymer science program, a marine life research center on the Gulf Coast and a program to help sports and other venues to improve security and protect themselves from attack.
Higher education in Mississippi has faced tight budgets the past several years, as have many parts of state government.
Higher education commissioner Hank Bounds said that since the late 1990s, Mississippi's universities have received an increasing percentage of their funding from tuition and a decreasing percentage from taxpayer dollars. He said the pattern is taking place in many other states, as well.
The Mississippi Joint Legislative Budget Committee last week released its spending recommendations for fiscal 2013, which begins July 1. The plan includes a suggested 1.9 percent cut in funding for universities.
Bounds had expected another suggested budget reduction for the universities. He said the eight public universities have taken cuts in the past three years but had federal aid to make up for it.
Bounds has told lawmakers that federal earmarks have been stopped and stimulus dollars are phasing out. Bounds said he's also concerned about the future of research dollars and Pell grants.
Saunders also sees that problem. She said the three largest schools -- USM, Mississippi State and the University of Mississippi -- operate almost exclusively on federal grants for many research programs and the money is drying up.
She said the competition now is to fund research that generates more dollars.
"We prefer competitive grants, and we compete very well," Saunders said.
Saunders said USM is helping train the next generation of scientists who could deal with the next oil spill or the next marine crisis. It is what Saunders calls a university system involved "in a little bit of everything."
Saunders said economic development is an expanding arena for higher education. She cited Bounds' recent chairmanship of the Mississippi Economic Council's Blueprint Mississippi. Blueprint, now being honed for presentation to lawmakers in January, recommends getting education agencies more involved in business recruitment.
Saunders said she has worked with the local Area Development Partnership.
"We work with the ADP when they are courting businesses. I have traveled from time to time. I think it is good for a business to hear from the president of the local university that 'Yes. We can provide for your workforce needs," Saunders said.
She said USM's Trent Lott National Center for Excellence in Economic Development & Entrepreneurship works to create a climate that provides more jobs for graduates and link higher education resources with economic development agencies.
Saunders said part of center director Rick Duke's job is use USM's resources to help graduates find jobs, especially ones that would keep them in Mississippi.
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