A proposal to merge 2 universities fizzles in the Mississippi Senate

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A proposal to merge one of Mississippi’s smallest universities into one of its largest ones died Wednesday in the state Senate.

But the future of the small school, Mississippi University for Women, could still be endangered by a bill that senators passed Tuesday, which will go to the House for more work. It would create a group to study whether Mississippi should close some of its eight public universities.

Senate leaders have questioned whether the state can afford to keep all the universities open as population trends show that a decrease in birth rates has caused a drop in elementary and secondary school enrollment, which could lead to fewer students pursuing higher education in the coming years.

A bill that came out of the Senate Education Committee last week proposed merging MUW into nearby Mississippi State University. The committee chairman, Republican Sen. Dennis DeBar, offered a significant change when he brought the bill up for debate Wednesday in the full Senate.

DeBar’s amendment removed the merger proposal and replaced it with a proposal to have a legislative group examine the financial needs of MUW and the Mississippi School for Math and Science, a public high school that’s located on the MUW campus in Columbus. He said the group would be able to make recommendations to state leaders.

“If the report comes back and says we need to upgrade the W, upgrade MSMS … so be it,” DeBar said. “I’ll be a champion.”

Senators accepted DeBar’s change, but then quickly killed the bill with 27 of the 52 senators voting against it. Hours later, one senator held the bill on a procedural move that could allow another round of debate on it in the next few days.

Republican Sen. Chuck Younger of Columbus said Mississippi School for Math and Science does outstanding work, “even though the facilities are not worth a flip.”

Leaders and alumni of MUW rallied at the Capitol Tuesday to try to keep their school open and free from merger.

Last week, the Senate Universities and Colleges Committee killed a bill that would have required the state to close three universities by 2028. The bill caused concern among students and alumni of Mississippi’s three historically Black universities, but senators said schools with the smallest enrollment would have been the most vulnerable: Mississippi Valley State, which is historically Black, along with Delta State University and MUW, which are predominantly white.

MUW has also enrolled men since 1982, and about 22% of the current 2,230 students are male. University leaders say having “women” in the name complicates recruiting, and they proposed two new names this year — Mississippi Brightwell University and Wynbridge State University of Mississippi. They recently paused the rebranding effort after receiving sharp criticism from some graduates.