Nora Roberts Miller, president of Mississippi University for Women, speaks to the media about the school’s opposition to a legislative bill suggesting the university be merged with Mississippi State University, on the steps of the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson, Miss., on Tuesday, March 12, 2024. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

The senator behind a bill to merge Mississippi University for Women with another public institution said he fears the regional college would be at risk of shutting down if lawmakers don’t act this session — something the university has denied is the case.

Sen. Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, told Mississippi Today he feels confident he will bring Senate Bill 2715 to the floor before Thursday’s deadline, but he’s still tinkering with the legislation. 

“Instead of potentially losing a whole campus, a whole university, let’s find a way to make sure something can stay there,” he said.

The headwinds facing higher education in Mississippi — from a failed bill this session to close three of the eight universities to the impending decline in the number of high school graduates — necessitate action, DeBar said. So does a bill that passed the Senate Tuesday to study “efficiency” in the public university system, though its author says it is not an effort to close schools.

“My thought was, ‘okay, if we don’t do anything now, there’s a possibility that the W could be shut down completely,” DeBar said. “I’m not saying it will happen, but I’m sure it’ll be talked about with the feasibility study, the task force.” 

Nora Miller, the MUW president, has said the university is in solid financial health because it has no debt. The university is working to increase enrollment — an effort, Miller has said, that could be helped by a more gender-neutral name.

“We vehemently deny any rumor or speculation” the university is at risk of closure, Miller said.

To counteract misconceptions, MUW is circulating a one-pager with facts about its success, such as the campus enrolling the highest number of Mississippians of any public university.

“The W has met IHL’s financial sustainability measures, has no debt, and is recognized as a best value,” she added in a statement. “We produce more degrees per 1020 undergraduate FTEs than any other institution in the IHL system. Sounds like a good investment to me.”

If SB 2715 passes, MUW would become the first public university in Mississippi to merge, according to its governing board, the Institutions of Higher Learning. The college would be taken over in 2025 by Mississippi State University, a behemoth institution less than 25 miles away that, unlike MUW, has not struggled with enrollment

A spokesperson for Gov. Tate Reeves’ office did not respond to questions. But the bill faces an uphill battle in the Mississippi House because the entire local delegation is against it, multiple lawmakers told Mississippi Today.

 “In my four years, I have not seen anything like that before where a bill has been dropped concerning an area and the local delegation is completely caught off guard,” said Rep. Dana McLean, R-Columbus.  

That was the case with another Senate bill that passed earlier this week and would remove the city of Jackson’s long-term control over its water and sewer systems. 

“The people that these bills impact the most were not a part of the remedy that is being presented,” said Sen. Angela Turner-Ford, D-West Point. “I think people should expect that — even if you’re told no. There should be some sort of dialogue.” 

DeBar said his bill was not intended to be a potshot at MUW. Originally, it was meant to address concerns about the Mississippi School for Math and Science, a residential high school for academically inclined students that has been housed on MUW’s campus since it opened in 1988 and enrolls around 240 juniors and seniors. 

MSMS is dealing with deteriorating infrastructure and has requested about $90 million to renovate the dorms and other facilities. A grant agreement between MUW and the Mississippi Department of Education stipulates that MSMS is to “provide the major repair and renovation funds” for its facilities, not MUW. But the university also plays a role in “routine” maintenance of MSMS.

Still, the large request, DeBar said, made it seem like no one had planned for MSMS’s future. 

“The feedback I got on the original bill was not, you know, ‘hey the students have better academic opportunities at the W,’” he said “It was, ‘hey we’re concerned that if you move MSMS the W will shut down,’ basically, and for me that wasn’t a good reason to keep these 11th and 12th graders where they’re at and hold them back potentially.” 

And, Miller appeared to lose confidence after the failed name change earlier this year, though that wasn’t the impetus of the bill, he said. So DeBar thought moving MSMS to Mississippi State — a idea from its former director — would put the high school in better hands, those of the university’s powerful president, Mark Keenum. 

“I just wonder if we’re gonna put $51 million into new dorms or rehabbing dorms, why not put it into a facility or a place where the kids can achieve success,” DeBar said. 

DeBar said he hadn’t spoken to Mississippi State or MUW before dropping the bill. The lieutenant governor gave Keenum a call before the committee. 

“I never talked to Dr. Keenum or Nora before the bill came up in committee,” DeBar said, though he’s spoken with Miller since then, as well as the mayor of Columbus. 

In response to questions about if Keenum opposed the bill, Sid Salter, Mississippi State’s vice president for strategic communications, said the president had “no additional comment” beyond a statement issued last week. 

“We appreciate the institutional confidence in MSU that this proposal implies, but I emphatically reiterate that MSU did not seek and has not requested this action from legislative Leaders,” Keenum said last week. “We have the utmost respect for MUW’s unique legacy, as well as the important role it continues to play in higher education in our state.” 

No lawmaker who spoke to Mississippi Today has seen reports to indicate the proposed merger would result in savings to the state of Mississippi. DeBar said a fiscal note has not been requested on the bill because he doesn’t think it will cost money.

“The campus would remain open,” Turner-Ford said. “The needs that it has would continue, staff would be required. There’s still building maintenance issues that would remain, so I don’t see how it would be cost-savings unless … some of the more top-tier administrators would no longer be in place.” 

At a photo op on the Capitol steps yesterday to commemorate the 140th anniversary of MUW’s charter, Miller said the bill would not save money because MUW and MSU already explored consolidating software systems in 2009 and decided not to because of the cost. 

“We really do change lives not only of our students but of their families going forward,” Miller said. “It’s a special place. Big box schools aren’t for everyone.”

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