HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — University of Southern Mississippi officials are keeping close tabs on Jackson these days, hoping that the Legislature will honor its $20 million request for a new College of Nursing building.
"We're confident that we've put together a good package, and we're confident that they're taking a good look at it, and we're hopeful that we'll get the $20 million," said USM's executive assistant to the president Chad Driskell.
In the meantime, the project received a sizable shot in the arm Wednesday with the announcement of a $1 million donation from Joe and Kathy Sanderson of Laurel.
Joe Sanderson is the chief executive officer of Sanderson Farms, based in Laurel.
College of Nursing Dean Katherine Nugent said she takes the gift as a gesture of faith in the university's nursing program.
"It validates our worth," said Nugent.
It also pushes USM past the $5 million mark in its $8 million private fundraising campaign — meaning the campaign has funded all but the nursing building's $3 million endowment.
Joe Sanderson said this is his first major gift to USM, and it began with former Southern Miss President Martha Saunders.
Saunders pitched the need for a new 86,000-square-foot building to Sanderson in early 2012. Sanderson said he was prepared to donate during another visit by interim President Aubrey Lucas earlier this year.
"USM is a great asset to South Mississippi, and the nursing building is a great benefit to people all across the state," he said.
He wanted to commit directly to Saunders, unaware that she had become the provost of the University of West Florida.
So Saunders visited Sanderson at his Laurel office two weeks ago, during a visit to Hattiesburg on business.
"I was delighted to see her, and I always thought very highly of her," said Sanderson. "I wanted to make that commitment directly to her, because she had asked for it."
The College of Nursing building is a $31 million project, designed to relieve the nursing program's current cramped quarters in Elizabeth Harkins Hall.
Nugent said the problem has become so dire that administrators just turned the last conference room in the building into a simulation lab.
"We need space," she said.
In addition to private funds, officials have $3 million in federal funds in hand for the project. But the big piece missing is the $20 million in legislative funds. The House passed a $120 million bond bill in February that had $10 million allotted for the College of Nursing.
If USM received only that amount, officials would need to delay the project to 2015 from its original 2014 starting date.
Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said it's still possible that Southern Miss will receive its full $20 million request this year.
While he understands the need for a new nursing building is great, Fillingane said the final bill also has to be fair to the needs of all eight public universities.
"It's a balancing act, because you can't give everybody everything that they want," he said.