May 25, 2011 12:16:00 PM
Education is the driving force behind economic development and the key to producing a stronger, more recession-proof Mississippi, state Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Hank Bounds told the Rotary Club Tuesday afternoon at the Country Club of Columbus.
It is a message Bounds has been spreading for months as spokesman for Blueprint Mississippi 2011, a statewide initiative to form a strategic economic plan for the state through educational achievement, resource management, economic competitiveness, and technology commercialization.
Bounds said when the project went on the road, collecting feedback from citizens across the state, he found the optimism in Columbus to be greater than any other region, with more than 62 percent of people saying they believe Mississippi children will be able to find a good job without leaving the state and more than 84 percent saying they believe Mississippi can improve its competitive position and experience growth over the next 20 years.
Bounds said because statistics show 90 percent of a child''s brain development occurs in the first four years of life, the state needs to push for a greater emphasis on early childhood education, and issues like poverty must be addressed.
"Being poor does not indicate you can''t be successful," he told Rotarians, "But children who grow up in poverty don''t typically grow up in print-rich, vocabulary-rich environments."
He said children who grow up in households classified as below the poverty level will hear an average of 20 million fewer words by the age of five than children who grow up in more affluent environments, and statistics indicate they are more likely to drop out of school or end up in prison.
Now, more than ever, he said, the state needs teachers who are "rock stars" in the classroom, but he feels colleges and universities are not doing all they can to produce that caliber of future educators.
Part of the problem, he said, is the statewide higher education faculty lags in compensation compared to other states. In order to attract quality teachers, new hires are being paid nearly as much or more than experienced faculty.
Enrollment is rising, but faculty positions aren''t keeping pace, causing an imbalance in student-teacher ratios. When faculty members can go to another state and make as much as $10,000 more, it''s hard to recruit -- and keep -- quality people.
"Where you spend your money is typically where your priorities are," Bounds said. "If we had a better educated citizenry ... we would have gone through the recession in a very different way. We need to help leaders recognize that (the university system) is the only entity that can truly create the next economy."
MUW president search
Bounds also updated Rotary Club members on the search for a new president to lead Mississippi University for Women.
He praised Interim President Allegra Brigham, saying she arrived at a difficult time amid a precarious financial situation, a fractured alumni base, and plummeting enrollment, but she handled it "in a masterful way."
Bounds said a campus search committee for a new president will be formed, made up of 20 to 25 members of the MUW faculty, staff, administration, student body, alumni, and community leaders. He hopes a new president will be named by October.
The ideal president will be chosen not only for qualifications, but also for "fit."
"At the end of the day, it really is a marriage," Bounds said.
Bounds concluded by saying that all of Mississippi''s institutions of higher learning must play a role in developing quality students to ensure a brighter economic future.
"We have the most powerful governor we''ve ever had, under the worst financial conditions we''ve ever had," Bounds said. "We are where we are, and we need to figure out how to make sure our students get the highest quality education possible."
The Rotary Club will hold its next meeting Tuesday at noon at the Country Club of Columbus. Rotary Night Out will be held June 3 at 6 p.m.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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