A lawmaker behind a controversial bill to close three public universities in Mississippi says its chances of becoming law this session are “slim.” 

Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, told Mississippi Today that he just wanted to start a conversation when he filed Senate Bill 2726, which would require the governing board of Mississippi’s eight public universities to shutter three by 2028. “It’s pretty out there,” Polk said. 

Start a conversation, Polk did. Social media was a flurry the weekend after the bill dropped. By Wednesday, an online petition opposing the bill had gained more than 7,500 signatures. A local newspaper serving Columbus, the northeastern city home to Mississippi University for Women, published an op-ed warning the bill would devastate the local economy. 

And alumni of the state’s three historically black universities and colleges decried the bill as a do-over of former Gov. Haley Barbour’s plan to merge those schools. 

That isn’t his intention, Polk said. Any of the eight universities could be closed under his bill. And among the most vulnerable based on enrollment are three of the state’s regional colleges: MUW in Columbus, Delta State University in Cleveland and Mississippi Valley State University, a historically Black university in Itta Bena.

“If I were trying to close an HBCU, I would’ve put that in the bill,” Polk said. 

The bill will likely die in the Senate Colleges and Universities Committee due to politics, Polk said, and the emotional ties that Mississippians have to their colleges. His bill is not on the committee’s agenda for Thursday.

Still, it comes at an inauspicious time for higher education in Mississippi as university officials are scrambling to contend with a dwindling number of high school graduates going to college, a trend that will hit the regional colleges the hardest. It also comes on the heels of a failed push this session to rename MUW, part of an effort to boost the college’s declining enrollment.

“You can see how changing the name of the W causes such angst,” Polk said. “This bill will cause much more, and I know that.” 

A number of solutions have been offered to this problem. Sen. Nicole Boyd, R-Oxford, the chair of the Senate Colleges and Universities Committee, has introduced a bill that would create a legislative taskforce to study how the “enrollment cliff” will impact the state’s higher education system.

But Polk’s bill is the first to propose the state close universities instead of coming to their rescue. 

“Sometimes you just have to pull the Band-Aid off the wound,” Polk said. “Until I introduced this bill, no one was talking about that.” 

Polk said the bill was his idea and that he did not consult the 12-member Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees before filing it. An IHL spokesperson said the board does not comment on pending legislation. 

If passed, IHL would be required to decide which three schools to close after conducting statewide listening sessions and evaluate criteria such as enrollment data; tuition rates; economic impact; additional services such as medical, agricultural, engineering or research; and “any other special factors that the board believes the institution offers that cannot be easily replaced or replicated.” 

Involving IHL, Polk said, seemed like a way to make this process less political than if the Legislature decided which three to close. But many universities in Mississippi have felt overlooked by the board at various points in their history. Nine of the 12 trustees are graduates of Mississippi’s three largest research universities. Some are high-dollar donors to Gov. Tate Reeves, and all are gubernatorial appointees.

“IHL has the best interest of the education of students in higher education settings in Mississippi, and they’re the ones that can make the best decision for all of Mississippi,” Polk said. 

Though Polk says his bill will save taxpayer dollars, he does not envision it reducing the annual funding IHL receives. He referred to an IHL handout showing the appropriations each school received last year. 

If IHL closed the three schools with the smallest enrollments — Delta State, Valley State and MUW — the state could save $85 million, Polk said, money he sees as better off distributed among the remaining five. 

“If they didn’t choose the three I just mentioned, the savings to the state would be better,” Polk said. 

What would happen to the towns around these smaller colleges, like Itta Bena, Cleveland and Columbus? Polk said that’s not why the state universities exist. 

But he noted his bill would not permit the closed campuses to become branches of the remaining five. The buildings would have to be sold or repurposed, he said. 

“Our universities have a mission,” Polk said. “We forget sometimes their mission is to educate in a higher form than K-12. It is not economic development.” 

If the University of Southern Mississippi closed, Polk said he would say he’s sorry, “but that’s what IHL thinks is best for the state of Mississippi.”

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