When Mark Keenum became Mississippi State University’s 19th president Jan. 5, he immediately underwent an economic baptism of fire.

“The first week in January, we were advised the governor’s budget would cut university funding 5 percent,” he said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association. “For the first six months of my new position, I practically lived with the legislature at Jackson.

“Our Extension, Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, and veterinary school programs were really exposed going into the budget process. We had the challenge of educating the legislature on the importance of these programs to our state.

“We were elated when the final budget bill came out in June with no cuts. But we got word from the governor’s office that we shouldn’t celebrate too much, that we probably wouldn’t get to spend the money.

“Sure enough, the governor announced another 5 percent cut. It wasn’t easy, but we implemented it. Now, we’ve been told to be prepared for another 3 percent cut for 2010, and that we should be prepared for a 13 percent cut for 2011. Beyond that, there’s talk of a devastating 23 percent cut for 2012.”

Keenum, who earned a Ph.D. in agricultural economics at Mississippi State and now serves as a professor in the department in addition to his presidential duties, is nothing if not schooled in the art of politics and legislative wrangles.

Prior to returning to his alma mater, he served as under secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for two years, providing leadership and oversight for the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency and Foreign Agricultural Service, with a total operating budget of $1.7 billion and approximately $40 billion in program authority.

Before that, he was legislative assistant for agriculture and natural resources, then chief of staff for Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, working on a wide range of issues important to agriculture, including the 1990, 1996, and 2002 farm bills, and with direct oversight of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and the Committee on Appropriations.

“We’re doing all we can to meet these financial challenges head-on,” Keenum says. “We have to look very deeply into our operations and develop budgets that reflect the magnitude of these cuts, while maintaining the high quality of our education, research, and outreach programs.

It’s a daunting task — perhaps the most difficult economic challenge of our lifetimes.

“We have to confront the reality that we can’t rely on the state to provide all the resources we need, that we must become more focused, more efficient, more innovative. To that end, we’ve turned to our alumni and friends for a $100 million fund-raising initiative to maintain and support our talented faculty and for student scholarships. If successful, this will help sustain us through these tough times, and to attract more students, which will generate more revenue.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com