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Monday, February 01, 2010

JSU Prez stands by his HBCU merger plan

Despite a public backlash, Jackson State President Ronald Mason Jr. has reiterated his stance in favor of merging Mississippi's three historically black universities.

"I know the challenges we face today - we could stop the merger and still end up losing the schools," he told a group of about 300 students who gathered on campus Wednesday. "If not this, then what?"

Mason, speaking by phone from Washington, received several "boos" from students as he explained his idea to consolidate Alcorn State, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State into a new "Jacobs State University."

"This really would be a model for the next generation of HBCUs," he said. "I've thought about this a lot."

Mason, who has led JSU since 2000, has been recognized nationally as one of the top HBCU leaders. In 2008, he received the Thurgood Marshall College Fund's Education Leadership Award - the highest individual honor given to a current leader of a public HBCU.

He publicly opposed a similar merger proposal made by Gov. Haley Barbour in November.

But in a 34-page presentation obtained by The Clarion-Ledger recently, Mason suggests creating a single university would be better than letting "financially weak ASU, MVSU, JSU become weaker" in the state's budget crisis.

The university system is preparing to lose more than $180 million in appropriations by 2012 because of the budget crisis and the end of federal stimulus dollars.

"In my mind, if we don't come together, we could end up dying apart," Mason said.

Mason said his idea was not ready to be made public. He had discussed it with selected state leaders and alumni. "I've just been picking people's brains," he said.

But lawmakers Wednesday condemned Mason for making the suggestion.

"Whether it be President Mason or Gov. Barbour, we think it shows a clear lack of wisdom," said House Universities and Colleges Committee Chairman Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs. "It is a position that we cannot support and will not support."

Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, said he felt betrayed by Mason's decision to suggest a merger behind closed doors.

"We have a Philistine among us," said Jordan, a Valley State grad. "The only thing (Mason) needs to close is his mouth."

Other alumni expressed a similar disapproval.

"Alcorn State and Valley State will merge with Jackson State the day after Mississippi State and (the University of Southern Mississippi) merge with Ole Miss," Alcorn alum Matt Thomas said.

Rep. Billy Broomfield, D-Moss Point, said he received an e-mail with the PowerPoint presentation last week.

"He (Mason) didn't realize how ludicrous it was," said Broomfield, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus.

Despite two Senate bills that propose mergers, Bounds said the merger idea is a nonissue. The bills have not been taken up.

"The House has made it abundantly clear that they will not take this up," he said. "The most productive thing we can do now is find out how we deal with the cuts we face."

Alcorn State President George Ross said Wednesday he does not believe the university's future is at stake.

"We're having to make some tough choices that we maybe would not have made otherwise," he said.

Jackson State University President Ronald Mason's suggestion to create a single university out of the state's three historically black colleges includes the proposal to rename the school Jacobs State University.

The proposed name would honor H.P. Jacobs, who is one of the founding fathers of JSU.

A former slave, Jacobs went on to become a minister and doctor who founded the Mississippi Baptist Convention and Natchez Seminary, which eventually would become Jackson State.

"I just thought he was a great symbol of black people being able to overcome," Mason said.

His PowerPoint presentation on the merger notes that Alcorn State and JSU are both named after "slave owner/segregationists."


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