Backwards to the Future Cockeyed

Doing things differently and better has been the hallmark of American progress.

It began with our founding fathers who crafted a democratic republic that revolutionized human rights and government. It continued with the development of the moving assembly line that revolutionized industrial production; mechanization, improved varieties, better pest control and satellite technology that revolutionized farming; clean water and improved sanitation that revolutionized control of infectious diseases. Public education, transportation systems, rural electrification, armament, communications…the domains of such progress go on and on and on.

Most call it “change.” Some call it “innovation.” Others call it “adaptation.” The bespectacled call it “survival.”

The late W. Edwards Demming who so influenced quality production systems once said, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” Civil rights activist Eldridge Cleaver kept it simpler, “Change or die.”

The message is pretty simple: Circumstances change, markets change, needs change, therefore, institutions and processes must change, innovate, adapt or become obsolete.

You can learn all of this stuff at a university, of course. How terribly ironic, then, that universities find it so difficult to embrace change.

And, you ask, why is all this yada yada relevant?

Because, the College Board is about to embark on presidential searches for three universities that greatly resist change.

All three, Jackson State University, Alcorn State University, and Mississippi University for Women owe their existence to past discrimination. JSU and ASU, along with Mississippi Valley State University, were created to serve only black people. MUW was created to serve only white women. Discrimination lawsuits undid those unconstitutional restrictions. But powerful alumni and other interests want each of these universities to keep its historical focus.

Numerous studies show this backwards focus cockeyed. Circumstances, markets, and needs have changed. To survive and prosper, these institutions must change, innovate, and adapt. The Ayers desegregation settlement provided special funds to JSU and ASU for this purpose. Halfway through, there is little evidence of progress. MUW’s issues have been well publicized, from the banishment of the original alumnae association to defeat of the name change proposal.

Search committees led by College Board members will be challenged to balance backwards looking interests with the best future interests of each university and the state. Those leaders are: for JSU, Jackson attorney Bob Owens, a JSU graduate; for MUW, Christy Pickering, a CPA who graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi; for ASU, C.D. Smith, a regional manager for AT&T who graduated from Mississippi State University. Guiding all will be Commissioner of Higher Education Hank Bounds.

Different and better has not been the hallmark of the current board. But, let’s do as great American ironist and poet Robert Frost encouraged. “Entertain great hopes.”

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