When Gov. Haley R. Barbour ordered statewide budget cuts last month, Mississippi State University was prepared.

"Universities are not immune to the challenges we have to deal with," MSU President Mark Keenum told more than 80 attendees at the Monday luncheon sponsored by The John C. Stennis Institute of Government and the Capitol Press Corps. He explained upon beginning his administration last year he immediately faced a five percent budget cut and spent all but three weeks of his first six months as president in Jackson lobbying for level funding this year. He succeeded, but when he returned to Starkville he instructed all departments to write budgets that assumed a five percent cut again.

"Sure enough, last month, the governor made a five percent cut," Keenum said. "We were already prepared for that." Keenum did say he was "somewhat dismayed" at September's tax revenue numbers and anticipates "another round of cuts this year."

But Keenum is optimistic and believes smart decisions and general good news at Mississippi State University will buoy the institution during the current economy.

MSU increased enrollment by more than 800 students this year up to 18,600: the largest university in Mississippi and on target to reach its goal of 22,000. The additional 800 students off-set about 40 percent of the initial budget cuts. Keenum also initiated cost savings efficiencies: by transitioning from paper checks to electronic transactions, the university is saving $400,000 a year.

And fortunately for MSU, the school ranks top in the country for congressionally directed funding accounting for $75 million last year, according to Keenum. That is in addition to $150 million in independent research grants. Keenum said private contributions from the "Bulldog Nation" are on track to exceed last year and those donors enable items like the new $13 million basketball practice facility. Keenum said the university only receives 29 percent of its total budget from the State of Mississippi and that for every one dollar the state invests into MSU, it sees three dollars returned in direct impact on the state.

Keenum said he is proud of Mississippi State's recent accomplishments. He noted the average ACT score for a college freshmen from Mississippi is just over 18, while the average score for a freshman entering MSU is 23.7 (and their honors college average is 30). State continues to be the number one choice of Mississippi high school graduates. The engineering school ranks in the top ten percent nationally and the university is number five in the country for agricultural research. Forbes listed MSU as #18 in its Top Twenty University "Best Buys."

Keenum is also proud that MSU was chosen as the home for a presidential library. The papers of President Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President and general-in-chief of the U.S. Army during the Civil War are housed in Starkville. Keenum mentioned when asked by one reporter on the irony of such a thing, he simply replied that no other state did so much to propel Grant onto the national stage than Mississippi. Indeed, Grant's 1863 Vicksburg Campaign including battles near Grand Gulf, the capture of Jackson, his victory at Champion Hill near Raymond, and the surrender of Vicksburg, directly preceded his promotion to major general by President Abraham Lincoln.

Keenum quoted former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, "The road out of poverty runs by the school house"; but added he believes that road now also runs by the university. Keenum views MSU as an economic engine for the state to create a stronger and better workforce to attract jobs and more development. In addition to agricultural research, which impacts one-quarter of Mississippi's revenue, MSU plans to expand other sectors: automotive and aerospace, defense, biomass and biofuels, and entrepreneurship.

Keenum understands public-private-university partnerships. In the 20 years since earning his undergraduate, masters, and doctorate degrees from MSU and returning as State's 19th president, Keenum worked as the top appropriations and agriculture aid in the U.S. Senate. He joined the staff of U.S. Senator Thad Cochran as a legislative assistant on agricultural issues, but left as Cochran's chief-of-staff after shepherding three comprehensive farm bills and managing appropriations as Cochran's top personal and committee aid. Immediately before returning to Starkville, Keenum served as Under Secretary of the Department of Agriculture.

Rhonda Keenum, MSU's first lady, also took her Starkville education to Washington where she served as a congressional aid and in public affairs capacities before achieving high profile roles including Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Deputy Director of the Republican National Committee, and Deputy Assistant to the President under George W. Bush.

Mark, Rhonda, and their four children now make their home on the campus of Mississippi State.

It appears the Keenums got their children out of Washington D.C. in time. "I'm impressed with the improvement of their dialect," he told the Stennis group.

Brian Perry of Jackson is a partner in a public affairs firm. Contact him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.