Funding OK for MVSU's home comes in tough economy

JACKSON, MS (AP) - Higher education officials are moving forward with plans to build a nearly $1 million president's home at Mississippi Valley State University at a time when all of the state's colleges face tight budgets.

The state College Board has signed off on plans to spend up to $1.1 million on the project. Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said the university's current home is uninhabitable.

MVSU President Donna Oliver, who started work in January, has been living in a loft at The Alluvian, an upscale hotel in Greenwood, at a cost of $2,450 a month. The hotel is about 15 miles from the university campus in Itta Bena. Bounds said the Legislature provided $900,000 in bonds for the building project. The state College Board also approved an extension of the hotel lease while the home is built.

"It is my understanding that MVSU fully intends to stay within that budget and move Dr. Oliver into the new residence, which will also serve as a space for campus fundraising activities and other public events," Bounds said in an e-mail.

Debbie Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the university, defended the project.

"Yes, we are in a recession, but she's got to have a home to reside in and a home to work in. This is a home where she will entertain potential donors and alumni ... and entice corporations to help the Valley," Montgomery said Wednesday.

For years, MVSU's leaders have lived in 1970s brick structure that eventually grew to 3,900 square feet after additions. It has been vacant since 2007. When former President Lester Newman lived there, he complained of dry rot and mildew, said Montgomery, who said the house also has foundation problems.

No date has been set to start construction of the new home. Design plans call for a 4,100-square-foot, two-story house with four bedrooms and four bathrooms. The home would be modest compared to homes for other university leaders.

Carrier House at the University of Mississippi was built for a timber baron in 1954 and later donated to the campus in Oxford. The 11,540-square-foot structure has 12 rooms and a guest house over the garage.

The University of Southern Mississippi has a two-story Georgian-style house with five bedrooms and sits on three acres in southwest Hattiesburg. The 9,200-square-foot house was built in 1979 with public funds at a cost of $577,000. The state has placed its current replacement cost at $1.8 million.

Historically black MVSU is one of the state's smaller universities, enrolling just under 3,000 students. Montgomery said it doesn't receive as much private financial support as the larger institutions. Montgomery also said MVSU is trying to save money in other areas by leaving many vacant positions open and reducing employee travel and purchases.

Gov. Haley Barbour has cautioned all state agencies about spending, and most universities are preparing in case the governor orders any 5 percent budget cuts as he did last fiscal year.

Jackson State University, another historically black college, proposed a $2 million president's home in 2007. The move was temporarily abandoned and JSU purchased a 3,300-square-foot home in Jackson, said university spokesman Anthony Dean. The house, which cost $300,000, is located in an upscale area of the city.

"While there are no immediate plans to build the president's home, it's part of our long-range plans once funding becomes available," Dean said.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)