Rankins eyes efficiency, support as Mississippi’s higher education commissioner

A native of Greenville, Alfred Rankins Jr. has firsthand experience with education in Mississippi. Now, he has the opportunity to shape its direction for future generations.

Rankins assumed the role of Commissioner of Higher Education in July, following his appointment by the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning. He previously served as president of Alcorn State University and IHL’s deputy commissioner for academic and student affairs.

This appointment is the latest entry in Rankins’ long history with education in the Magnolia State, which includes earning a bachelor’s degree from Alcorn and both a master’s and doctoral degree from Mississippi State University. He also gained experience on the faculty-side of university life as he worked his way through the ranks of Mississippi State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences before turning to administration.

Rankins said his transition from student to faculty to the highest levels of administration was inspired by his desire to make a difference in people’s lives. In an interview with Alumnus magazine, he explained how he plans to use this experience to continue the growth of higher education in Mississippi.

Q: How do you feel your personal experience within different areas of higher education will influence your perspective in this new role?

A: My experience gives me the ability to view decisions from various perspectives and understand the impact these decisions will have on faculty, staff and students. Viewing an issue from a single perspective is not helpful in the decision-making process. It is important to be able to understand and balance various competing priorities when the goal is to find the best solution to an issue.

Q: What would you most like to accomplish in this new role?

A: As Commissioner of Higher Education, I plan to continue communicating the benefits of higher education to all Mississippians, from policymakers to parents and students. Our university system advances our state through its mission of education, research and service. From preserving history in a way that is accessible to all Mississippians, to preparing students for careers using cutting-edge technology, to helping current business owners improve processes and increase profits, our universities touch the lives of all Mississippians.

Mississippi State is a great example of this. The university is the home of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library and the prestigious Frank J. and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana, while serving as the national lead university for the FAA’s Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems. The university’s Extension agents also help local farmers grow a better tomato for you to buy at the farmers market. I want to help all Mississippians understand the full breadth and depth of the contributions made by the university system.

As a system, we have placed an emphasis on completion that I would like to continue. In 2017, the public universities in Mississippi awarded 17,760 degrees, and we have had an 8.9 percent increase in degrees conferred over the past five years. We must continue to structure support to help students succeed and find ways to help them break down barriers to completion.

Q: What is your assessment of the state of higher education in Mississippi?

A: We do an excellent job of providing students with an education that prepares them to be the workforce and leaders of the future, while solving Mississippi’s most pressing problems through research and strengthening our communities through outreach. However, we must continue to work with existing and potential businesses to ensure that we provide the programs and experiences that will prepare our students to succeed in the workforce upon graduation and to adapt to industry changes over time. We must continue to seek grants to provide the resources needed to conduct research that will improve the lives of all Mississippians. We must continue to stress the importance of investing in higher education to our state leaders.

Q: What is your forecast for how the role of higher education will change in Mississippi?

A: Higher education must continue to grow and evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of business and industry. As the world becomes more automated, we will need less manpower and more brainpower, which is why the university system has had a 37.9 percent increase in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees awarded in the last five years. We must continue to evaluate our program offerings to ensure they align with the majors that students want and to provide graduates with the skills businesses need. We must also continue to find ways to be more efficient and stretch our resources as far as possible, so we can remain accessible and affordable for Mississippi students.

Q: How do you see land-grant and research-heavy universities, like Mississippi State, playing into that future?

A: Land-grant, research-intensive universities, like Mississippi State, play an important role in our state and nation. We are advancing the state and making a difference in the lives of all Mississippians. The land-grant universities were established to provide a practical education that served the nation’s agricultural and technical needs of the late 19th century and were also asked to conduct research that would help local farmers to net better crops and to share this information with other farmers. More than 100 years have passed and much has changed within agriculture and technology, but the mission of serving others remains at the heart of land-grant universities.

Interview by Susan Lassetter | Photo by Beth Wynn