The board overseeing Mississippi public universities failed to pass a series of policy changes in November that would have increased its oversight of off-campus degree programs following months of unusually spirited discussion for the typically rehearsed public body. 

The trustee pushing the changes said the new policies would address an issue of growing concern among higher education officials in Mississippi: Larger and better-resourced universities moving into the geographic area of regional colleges and forcing direct competition for a decreasing pool of in-state college students.  

For example, Mississippi State University announced in October that it was launching the Gulf Coast Aquatic Health Laboratory, an expansion of its offerings in what has been traditionally considered the University of Southern Mississippi’s backyard. 

Mississippi’s eight public universities currently have wide latitude to move on-campus degree programs offsite — think of Mississippi State University’s Meridian campus — even if those programs tiptoe into a region of the state another school traditionally recruits in. 

Under the board’s existing policies, universities seeking to set up new off-campus programs are supposed to do so “without unnecessary program duplication in the same geographic area.” If another institution is within 50 miles of a university’s proposed program, the two schools are directed to discuss the conflict and possibly obtain mediation from IHL, but it’s unclear what criteria IHL uses to make a decision. 

When the number of high school graduates in Mississippi begins to decline in 2025, this could become a problem, according to Trustee Gee Ogletree, an attorney and a University of Southern Mississippi alumnus. 

So in April, Ogletree started working on policy changes that would have required every university to receive approval from the IHL board before moving already-approvedprograms off-campus, with the idea that trustees would yay or nay requests based on “objective criteria” that factors in the best interest of the university system. 

The proposal would result in months of back-and-forth that culminated in a confusing vote against the changes at the board’s November meeting. 

Ogletree, who told Mississippi Today he had nothing to add to statements he has made at public meetings, introduced the changesin September during the board’s annual retreat at the White House Hotel in Biloxi, 170 miles from the board’s usual Jackson meeting place.As is typical for these retreats, it was not attended by any member of the public except a Mississippi Today reporter. 

But two trustees — both Mississippi State alums — had some questions. A spirited discussion ensued. 

“One is, what is the intent of this?” asked Hal Parker, a businessman who founded a successful fiberglass insulation distribution company. “Are there issues that we’ve neglected in the past, or?” 

This policy could become “political,” Parker added, something Ogletree said he didn’t foresee happening. 

“Can I ask a question? Why do we really need this,” said Bruce Martin, the president of an insurance agency, a few minutes later. “I’m having trouble understanding what the issue is that we need to solve.” 

“Well,” Ogletree replied, “as I had indicated earlier, if I have some holes in my yard, I don’t wait till I step into them and break my leg before I fill the hole—” 

“Gee, I’m not interested in what can,” Martin interrupted. “Has anything happened that makes this an issue?”

“Yes, what has happened, as we’re all aware, is that we will have over the next decade much fewer traditional students,” Ogletree stated, adding that he thought the board would be abdicating its responsibility to be a good steward of state dollars if it permitted the universities to duplicate off-campus programs without more oversight. 

It did not convince Martin who said he believed the universities currently must “work to have the best programs” and that Ogletree’s policies sounded like “protectionism which I would not be in favor of.”

“It seems to me what we’re doing is not providing freedom of choice for the people and giving people all the opportunities,” Martin said.

The three trustees also sparred over whether the most powerful president in the university system — MSU’s Mark Keenum — was on board. The September meeting was on a Thursday. Ogletree said when he spoke to Keenum that Monday, Keenum was supportive. But Parker said when he spoke to Keenum the day before the board meeting, Keenum had concerns. 

Martin did not respond to an inquiry from Mississippi Today, and Parker said he thought the policies were not needed because “the intrusion on IHL universities into the territory of other IHL universities” is protected by the board’s existing policies. 

This dispute could have easily gone down between trustees who had graduated from any school in the university system. When the University of Mississippi expanded its Oxford-based nursing program offerings earlier this year, there were concerns that it would draw students away from Delta State University. In Natchez, Southern Mississippi used to have a nursing program that the board transferred to Alcorn State University in 1977. 

By the time Ogletree reintroduced the policies in November, the IHL board staff had made some edits. A phrase was removed that would have directed the commissioner to develop guidelines that considered the “potential harm to existing similar degree-granting academic programs.” But the bulk of the policy remained the same. 

It was approved for a first reading during the regular meeting. Then, before the board adjourned, Parker asked for a motion to reconsider, then a roll call vote. 

Parker’s motion passed. But there was some initial confusion. Van Gillespie, the board attorney, asked the board to redo the vote so the secretary could accurately take notes. 

Ogletree, who read a statement about why he disagreed with the board, made a motion to let the vote stand.

“I understand we’re a democracy and that majority rules,” he said. “I’ve counted the votes and I understand those. In this case I simply don’t think the majority is correct.” 

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.