Mississippi's Brain Drain

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

The educational crisis in Mississippi goes beyond public elementary and high schools. Inadequate funding and political inaction have left the state's public colleges in such dire straights that the system's best faculty members are leaving in droves. In a five-article feature on June 21, 1987, Joan Kent of Biloxi's Sun Herald examined why so many professors are leaving and what consequences their departures will have for the future of higher education in the state. 


Oxford — Ole Miss Chancellor Gerald Turner remembers the day last spring when chemistry professor Robert Metzger stormed into his office and resigned. Metzger quoted Gov. Bill Allain saying, in a televised speech before the 1986 Legislature, that Mississippi professors couldn't leave because other states had financial troubles, too. "This professor can, and he's going to," Metzger declared. 

The respected teacher and researcher, who taught at Ole Miss 15 years, left for a $10,000 annual salary increase at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. 

Metzger is one of 262 teachers who left Mississippi in 1986. Most sought higher pay, better research opportunities and what they hope is a steadier future. 

Altogether, nine percent of the state's professors left. Though the state College Board last week approved faculty raises averaging eight percent, or $2,500, Mississippi professors still will earn less than their counterparts at most other universities. 

Next year, the state's professors will earn an average of $35,779 — $9,741 less than the national average, College Board and American Association of University Professors figures show. 

The exodus from Mississippi has lowered morale among remaining faculty, left them less time to do research, and forced cancellation of some classes. 

"The morale on campus has not been lower since the James Meredith episode," said one Ole Miss department head, referring to the strife surrounding admittance of the first black to the school in 1962. 

From January 1, 1986, to the present, 45 Ole Miss faculty members have left for other jobs. The figure "is at least some 25 percent more than we usually have," said Ole Miss personnel director Buddy Chain. 

Most of the professors who have left are the cream of the crop: young and bright, or experienced, respected professors, some internationally known for their work. Some of the professors who've left the state are "grantsmen" who bring in much more money in research grants than they earn in salaries. 

"It's the quality of the people we're losing," said Mississippi State University president Donald W. Zacharias. "It's people like Bruce Glick, a highly respected teacher and researcher who brought hundreds of thousands of grant dollars to the university." 

Glick, a well-known animal genetics researcher, left to head the poultry science department at South Carolina's Clemson University in January after teaching at Mississippi State 32 years. 

The exodus is eroding staffs built up during the past decade, when Mississippi was able to attract high-caliber people because the national market for professors was glutted, said Will Norton, chairman of the journalism department at Ole Miss. "Now they've published, built their reputations, and they're being lured away," he said.

Younger professors who hadn't put down roots left first. "But now we're losing established, productive senior scholars, including some department heads," said Gordon Jones, acting chairman of Mississippi State's College of Arts and Sciences last year. 

According to Lucy Martin, director of financial analysis for the College Board, 210 faculty positions are unfilled. More would be empty if 132 faculty positions hadn't been eliminated by 1986 budget cuts. 


The brain drain comes as Mississippi struggles to boost its flagging economy by wooing high-tech industry. Expecting the universities to be the backbone of economic development without giving them sufficient resources "is like saying, 'I'm going to make you walk 1,000 miles, but I won't give you any shoes,"' Turner said. 

Professors are leaving because their salaries aren't competitive and they don't trust Mississippi's leaders to provide steady, substantial support for the universities. 

In a poll of department heads at the University of Southern Mississippi, James H. Sims, vice president for academic affairs, found that 26 of 45 exiting professors gave salaries and uncertainty about university funding as their main reasons for leaving. 

Mississippi professors' pay this year was the lowest in the South, according to the Southern Regional Education Board's data exchange. While Mississippi professors received no raises for the 1986-87 school year, salaries nationally climbed an average of 5.9 percent. 

Most professors have left for raises between $3,000 and $10,000. Some have gone for much more: An Ole Miss law school professor received a $20,000 increase when he went to Louisiana State University; a Jackson State history professor almost doubled his pay when he moved to a North Carolina university; and a Mississippi State math professor earned about $27,000 more in industry. 

In addition, Lucas said, many universities offer better medical and retirement benefits and newly equipped laboratories for science professors. 

Many professors left after the 1986 legislative session, when lawmakers rejected the College Board's proposal to close two universities, the state dental and veterinary schools and six off-campus branches. Instead, lawmakers trimmed all the universities' budgets by a total of $18.3 million. The decreases followed two cuts totaling around $6 million in the university budgets during the 1985-86 school year. 

As a result of the $18.3 million cut, none of the eight state universities could afford to give professors raises. Though some professors supported the closings proposed in 1986, they said bitter legislative fights over the proposals left an impression that there was no clear leadership for higher education in Mississippi. 

"It wasn't so much the salary; it was the handwriting on the wall," said Jeffrey Wittenberg, who left Ole Miss law school last fall to teach at Suffolk University in Massachusetts. "It appeared that education was not a priority in Mississippi." 

Last January, the College Board dealt the already depressed professors another blow, awarding $56,000 in bonuses to Ole Miss football coaches after the team's December victory over Texas Tech in the Independence Bowl. 

"That sealed it," said James Cobb, an Ole Miss history professor who's leaving for the University of Alabama, where he'll direct the honors program. 

"I'd had some misgivings about accepting the offer," he said as he packed books and took down posters hiding cracks in the plaster in his office. "But the bonuses told me the environment that education operates under in this state." 

Cobb, who taught at Ole Miss six years and was active in the university's Center for the Study of Southern Culture, wouldn't say exactly how much more he'll earn but he acknowledged that the increase is more than $14,000. 

Thomas A. Edmonds, dean of the Ole Miss law school, said Mississippi law professors' salaries are about $6,000 below the Southern average and $8,700 below the national average. 

Next year's merit raises, averaging eight percent, will still leave Mississippi professors' pay trailing behind, even if other states don't give raises. 

"That [the raise] won't do it," said Mary Brookins, acting chairman of Jackson State's computer science department. "It can't compare to offers of 20 percent raises." 

More problems are ahead, professors warn, if high-caliber educators continue to leave Mississippi: 

♦ State universities won't attract the state's honor students. 

♦ Courses will be canceled if faculty cannot be replaced. Mississippi State's math department already has killed eight of 140 classes because it doesn't have enough people to teach them, said Jimmy Solomen, math department chairman. Some students may not graduate on time if Mississippi State can't replace enough communications professors to teach required courses, the department chairman said. 

♦ The state's universities won't conduct quality research. "It takes years to build a research team," said Dr. Harper K. Hellems, chairman of the Medical Center's Department of Medicine. 

♦ Mississippi's universities will become training grounds for new professors who will move on. 

It's tough to find replacements for some who have left. "We've been looking for two years for heads of our computer science and accounting departments," said Everette Witherspoon, executive vice president of Jackson State. "We're offering in the $40s; they want in the $50s and $60s." 

Despite all the gloomy statistics, some professors and administrators are guardedly optimistic. They point to positive signs: 

♦ The business community's creation of the Council for Support of Public Higher Education in Mississippi. "The council has been a good strong voice and gotten the ear of legislators that academics wouldn't have been able to get," said James H. Sims, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Southern Mississippi. 

♦ The close vote last legislative session on an income tax bill, which would have boosted university funding. That was a near miracle in an election year, said one professor. 

♦ Budget increases approved in the last legislative session and merit raises averaging eight percent in September. 

♦ Polls showing increased public support of higher education. 

♦ A change in leadership in the legislature which some professors believe will give more power to younger, more progressive lawmakers. 

♦ The focus on education in the governor's race. 

But even optimistic professors warn that change won't come easily. 'The situation wasn't created overnight," said Ole Miss professor John C. Winkle, "and it won't be solved overnight."