A bill to close three public universities in Mississippi will die as expected after inspiring a weeklong ruckus that some lawmakers blamed on misleading news articles.

But another bill that advanced in the Senate Universities and Colleges Committee on Monday has raised questions about its potential to yield similar results. The sponsor said that isn’t the intention.

[Read more: Lawmaker behind bill to close three universities says its has ‘slim’ chance to pass]

The author of controversial Senate Bill 2726, Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, seemed relieved his bill’s death was official. It would have required the governing board of Mississippi’s eight public universities to shutter three by 2028 after analyzing criteria such as enrollment, economic impact or any other “special factors.”

“Please, everyone, get that message out: The chair has killed my bill,” Polk said during the Senate Colleges and Universities Committee meeting. “And that way I can sleep at night.”

Senate Bill 2725, by Committee Chair Nicole Boyd, R-Oxford, would require a similar analysis of factors. The legislation, Boyd explained, was inspired by a hearing earlier this session on the impending decline in high school graduates going to college that is poised to hurt the bottom-lines of Mississippi’s tuition-dependent universities.

If her bill becomes law, a 10-member task force — a mix of lawmakers and appointees representing the regional colleges, HBCUs and research institutions — would review IHL’s funding formula, the system’s physical plant, enrollment and graduation rates, and any existing plans to tackle the enrollment cliff.

Then the task force would make recommendations to the Legislature with an eye to increasing efficiency and the number of Mississippians with college degrees.

“This bill looks at really what is going on at our colleges and universities as they are right now, what we need to do in regard to that enrollment cliff that we see is coming,” Boyd told committee members. “We need to be proactive in helping our universities and colleges manage this.”

Sen. Sollie Norwood, D-Jackson, asked if Boyd anticipated the task force making a recommendation to address the building deficiencies at the HBCUs which, despite a decades-long settlement, many alumni say continue to be underfunded. At Alcorn State, students have complained of mold in the dorms, and Jackson State has sought to upgrade its water system since the water crisis in 2022.

Boyd replied that she could not say what the task force’s findings would be and added that all of the universities struggle with deteriorating infrastructure.

After the meeting, Boyd told Mississippi Today that she can’t say closing universities is off the table for the task force, but that it is not her intention with the bill. She said the goal is to ensure tax dollars are meeting the universities’ needs.

“Everybody is trying to look at how we can make our IHL system the most efficient and effective to get a strong Mississippi workforce,” she said.

Polk’s bill would have put the decision on closures in the hands of the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees.

More than 14,000 people had signed an online petition calling for the bill’s death. The local newspaper in Columbus, home to Mississippi University for Women, published an op-ed against it. And alumni of Mississippi’s historically Black public universities decried the bill, with some saying they didn’t trust the IHL board, which is mostly comprised of graduates of the state’s three largest predominantely white institutions, to make a fair decision.

“We urge you, as elected representatives of the people of Mississippi, to recognize the profound value of all our state’s institutions by opposing this bill and working together to shift the focus from closure to investing to further strengthen these vital institutions,” read a letter from the alumni association presidents of Alcorn State University, Jackson State University and Mississippi Valley State University.

Though the bill was depicted by some news articles as targeting the three HBCUs, Polk and other lawmakers had suggested that more likely in its crosshairs were on the three smallest universities by enrollment: MVSU, Delta State University and Mississippi University for Women.

After Boyd confirmed she was not bringing Polk’s bill before the committee, she apologized to him for what she called misinformation.

“It’s a little bit ironic to me that this bill and this legislation has been so misquoted,” she said. “Clearly we might have some literacy issues that we need to look at, because … what his legislation said and what it was purported to say were entirely two different things.”

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