Don’t dismiss the plan without a clean canvas

Published 12:23 am Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mixing purple, gold, green and blue sounds a bit like the artist’s palette is in the hands of a child smocked in daddy’s old button down.

And for much of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s budget reduction proposal released Monday that combines several public universities would produce about the same results — a yucky shade of brown.

Messing with college allegiances is about the biggest no-no in the South, perhaps the country.

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A student baptized in school colors at age 18 will forever bow to his alma mater, it seems.

The governor’s proposal is to combine Mississippi’s three Historically Black Colleges and Universities into one to be housed in Jackson.

He also wants to merge Mississippi State University and the Mississippi University for Women.

Both groups of people that stand to lose the most have, historically, already lived a life of unequal rights. Ripping away a pillar of their success isn’t going to be as easy as pulling off a Band-Aid.

And it most likely won’t happen.

But, if we stop thinking about colors — black and white included — gender, history and pride, is Barbour right?

The economic downturn that crippled Detroit, Chicago and California six to nine months ago found it’s way to Mississippi a little late. And it’s going to stick around longer here too.

It’s correct to say that Mississippi residents don’t have as much to lose as residents in some booming parts of the country did. We don’t have as far to fall, but may still hit bottom.

Tax revenues are on a steady decline and major industry isn’t going to open its doors tomorrow.

Fiscally, something big has to change.

Cutting education certainly isn’t the answer to any problem. But restructuring it just may be.

If having eight public universities in a state of just under 3 million people were working economically, we wouldn’t be in financial trouble.

But the truth is Mississippi’s taxpayers are paying for universities that send too many students out of state for work.

And the belief among educators in the 1980s that every student needed a four-year college degree is waning.

Educators now realize that college isn’t for everyone. Vocational schools, community colleges and on-the-job training is all many folks need to be a contributing part of society.

Consolidating the state’s universities could ultimately strengthen an already-strong community college system.

Students who attend a nearby community college will save money, ultimately reduce debt and likely be just as prepared as some who jump straight into a four-year school.

Barbour stuck his neck out Monday, and there’s a good chance it’s going to be chopped off.

This kind of change isn’t easy and never seems fair.

It’s painful to see your alma mater disappear, but it’s not you that matters. Our focus should be on the students of tomorrow, who don’t yet have a wardrobe of school colors.

Consolidating now could very well save the budget in the short-term, but increase the educational spending in the long run, too.

We’d just all have to learn to bleed brown, ugly as it may be.

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or