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Millsaps President Rob Pearigen Discusses 2019 Budget Cuts, Future of College

Written By Zoe Conner

After being forced to make dramatic budget cuts last academic year, Millsaps College President Rob Pearigen sat down with The Purple and White in November to discuss the finances and future of the college.

The 2019 budget cuts eliminated three programs, some donors decided to scale back their future financial commitments and 16 faculty members resigned or retired.

Among the topics covered in the November interview: the potential return of some programs, investment in new campus facilities, declining student enrollment and the growth of the athletics budget.

Below is a condensed version of the interview with Pearigen. It has been edited for length and clarity. The full interview, covering additional topics, will appear on The Purple and White’s website.

Purple and White: What ways
did Millsaps downsize last year specifically or since you’ve been here?

Well, we decided to discontinue several majors, not because they weren’t strong majors but because the numbers just didn’t justify their continued support with the number of faculty that would be necessary to maintain the major.

We discontinued the teacher licensure program and the education major, but we’re still teaching courses in education and we’ve made some arrangements with another college, William Carey University. Our students can get a Millsaps degree, pick up a couple of classes through William Carey that will enable them to complete practice teaching in classrooms here in Jackson, and finish with a degree from Millsaps and licensure from William Carey.

So, we’re really trying, even in those areas where we had to make some adjustments among the many majors, to make sure our students can have that experience. So religious studies, music, teacher education – these were some areas we discontinued. We’re going to continue teaching courses in religious studies. We’re going to continue teaching and continue having a strong music program. The question was just could we sustain the major and all that that required?

And we concluded that we could make some adjustments in the staff positions and faculty positions, continue teaching in those areas, but just not have what we needed to sustain the major, if that makes sense.

What were the other courses of action that were considered? Were there any others?

Well, we made some corresponding adjustments and reductions in staff positions and also in operational costs. So, we did not just target the academic program, target the faculty. There was an across the board evaluation of where we are and what we’re doing.

Did you expect the level of backlash that the college received for the downsizing that occurred last year, especially for the education program?

Look, these were very hard decisions to make and disappointing decisions to me. I understand the backlash. I understand the disappointment expressed. I attempted to reply to every single person that wrote to me by letter, or e-mail, or made phone calls to me. If I missed a couple, it was by accident. I made an attempt to respond to every single person with some general comments, but also something very specific and personal about their position that they took or the things they wanted me to know.

We have graduated a lot of teachers from Millsaps over the years, and it should come as no surprise that education is important to me. I’m not at all surprised that there was disappointment expressed. It’s hard. I did not have a baseline of what I thought it would be. I knew there would be disappointment. I knew there would be a backlash. But we felt like we were doing what we needed to do to help stabilize our financial position. These are tough decisions, but I think they’re right decisions.

Would you like to respond to the faculty open letter that was created last year?

Well, first of all, I want to be clear.

It was an open letter from a subset of the faculty, the AAUP (American Association of University Professors). So, it was a subset of the faculty and, last I understood, the number of people that are actual members of the AAUP is somewhere between 10 and 20 members. That doesn’t mean other faculty members wouldn’t agree with it, but it wasn’t an open letter from the faculty. It was an open letter from a subset of the faculty from the AAUP. And secondly, I’m very disappointed at this. The letter was a letter, if I’m not mistaken, to the trustees that was provided to the newspaper or to somebody that made it public. So, it was not an open letter, and it was not from the faculty. It was meant to be a private letter from the AAUP to the trustees and, if I’m not mistaken, one of the primary authors of the letter, when it went public, wrote to a trustee, and said, “Look, sorry, we didn’t mean for that to go public.” So, my response is I was very disappointed that it went public.

Do you have anything more to say to the faculty that took early retirements or resigned last year?

Well, the early retirements were an option. I mean, that was their choice. We provided an incentivized early retirement plan for people who were interested. But it was by no means a requirement. I’m sorry to see some of those faculty members go. I’m pleased that some will continue to teach courses here. I miss them, but also, I’m glad the college was able to provide for those who wanted to retire. I’m glad the college was able to make that arrangement.

Do you wish to respond to the students that were directly impacted?

I respond in the same way that I responded to everybody who wrote me or came by to see me or called me. Some of those were students and I responded to them then. You’ve read that thing I put out on May 3. I mean, you might look back at that at some point, maybe you’ve read it enough.

But I tried to say this is tough. I know it is. And it’s disappointing. And I wish we weren’t in this position. On the other hand, I feel like what we’re doing is the right thing to do to move forward. For those students who are directly impacted, for example, students who are interested in majoring in one of the areas, every single student that had declared a major in any of the majors being eliminated, we’ve made provisions for them to finish their degree in that major. And I felt like that was an obligation we had to them. And I’m glad we were able to maintain that obligation. For students who are affected by the departure of a faculty member that they cared about and no longer have, I share their disappointment.

Again, these were not easy decisions to make, but in the end, I think it’s positive because I believe the school will be in a better position when we are the size we have as opposed to a size that’s 25 percent larger than it should be.

In an article earlier this year, Patricia Coles, an alumna of Millsaps, claims that she wasn’t contacted before the cuts last year when she would have given more money if she knew. Is it true donors weren’t contacted beforehand? And if so, why not?

Well, I appreciate Ms. Coles and her support of the college. She’s made
a very generous gift to support our teacher education program, and I was disappointed that she was upset by not knowing beforehand. The fact of
the matter is that when I sent out the letter on May 3 to the entire Millsaps community, that included students, faculty, staff, all of our alumni, all of
the parents. Everybody got the same message at the same time. It would have been imprudent to share those decisions or those messages in advance to those who are impacted and leave others not knowing. I hope that Ms. Coles over time will forgive us for it and will embrace the college. She’s a loyal alumna, but sharing that kind of information with people in advance would not have been a wise or even appropriate thing to do.

She also said that the downsizing may affect her donations. There was backlash from other alumni as well. Were alumni donations affected at all?

I have no doubt that there are alums who have or will discontinue giving because of some of those decisions. It is true that our fiscal year ended on June 30, two months after the announcement, and our giving to the college was at a record high. You know, I could also point to individuals who said, “Look, I know the colleges has these challenges. I’m increasing my giving to the college in order to help, in order to make a difference.” So, again, I don’t doubt that there’s some disappointment and some people who have stepped back.

But I hope two things: One, over time, even those people will come to see the importance of what we’re doing here and the value of Millsaps to their experience. And they will want to re-engage. And secondly, I appreciate those who, even on the front end, have said, “I want to do my part to help Millsaps flourish in the future.”

With the opening of the two new buildings on campus, the addition
of the new sports team, but the downsizing of the majors last year, along with the tuition that rose last year, it’s been a little confusing for many Millsaps students. Is there anything that you’d like to explain to them?

Well, you probably never went into the Christian Center before it was demolished to be renovated. The building was an absolute embarrassment. It was a structural nightmare, and it was a facility that was so far below the standards of excellence for which we should be known that something had to be done. I talked to the president of the student body of 1985 a couple years ago, and he told me that when he was a senior, the president of the college told him then that they would begin a renovation of that building the next year. That’s 30 years ago, so it was 30 years worse than it was when they said they were going to renovate.

The art department was struggling along on the third floor of the academic complex. They couldn’t do noisy stuff. They couldn’t do some of the things in woodworking or sculpting. It was kind of an adventure to even do painting there because washing the brushes would clog the sinks and so forth. That program had some real liabilities associated with it. I mention those two things because in both cases, we’re talking about two facilities that were so far below the standards of what we should be living into, that it was just ridiculous.

Through the generosity of many people, we were able to renovate the Christian Center in a way that was never imagined by people. We were able to include in that Christian Center a beautiful chapel which this college has never really had, even though it’s a Methodist-related college. We put all of our humanities programs and our chaplaincy in this chapel under one roof, which I think is a marvelous statement about faith and reason working together, the mind and the heart together. We now have an art building, that is state of the art, better than anything you can possibly imagine. And all of the money for those projects were donated by private individuals or foundations, including some foundations that were not even on our radar screen two or three years ago.

My point about all that is that the cost of those buildings has nothing to do with eliminating faculty positions. It has to do with trying to build facilities that will attract students and help increase our enrollment. If the Christian Center was an embarrassment before and we had to walk prospective students around it to avoid it, I can’t help but think that the building they go in now will be an inspiration. I can’t help but think that students who are interested in the arts will find inspiration in the Visual Arts Center. So we have to do some things like that to help with our enrollment. And again, the money doesn’t come out of the student. Tuition dollars do not pay for those buildings. Those are private gifts from individuals.

And to me, those are ways of doing what we need here, and that is increasing our enrollment. So, they are apples and oranges really in terms of the funding for these things. And I will say this: Maybe you’ve been on some other campuses and there’s a lot of crazy facilities and kind of over-the-top stuff going on.

My position is that we are a college, not a country club. So, the facilities we build are student-focused: on students’ intellectual development, on their personal growth, on the reasons they’re here in college. I’m not interested in the lazy river thing running around campus. I’m interested in these buildings that I think will make a difference in attracting the next generation of students. And the athletic program, again, it was an attempt to attract more students. All of these facilities are attempts to attract more students. These are investments to attract more students. Our goal is to grow, and I don’t mean grow unreasonably. I’m not sitting here saying we need to have 2,000 students. I’d love for us to get back to 1,000. There will be a time, if we get back to 1,000 or 1,100, there will be a time where we might be able to add back in some of the positions we lost.