Rodney Bennett, president of the University of Southern Mississippi. Credit:

Rodney Bennett, who made history as the University of Southern Mississippi’s first Black president, announced his intent to step down in June 2023. 

“The time is coming for me to step aside for another individual to chart the path for the next chapter in our Southern Miss Story,” Bennett wrote in a campus-wide email Friday afternoon. 

Bennett, 55, wrote that he intends to explore new professional opportunities this spring. He said he will work closely with the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees to “develop a strong transition plan.” 

“I am excited about what lies ahead for me and for my family, but this transition will certainly be bittersweet,” he wrote. 

The Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees selected Bennett to lead USM, a predominately white institution, in 2013, when the university was struggling financially. Bennett downplayed the significance of his selection, according to a report from Gulf Life

“I don’t know what message it sends, other than don’t let any barrier that other people may place in front of you, and label that people place on you, stop you from pursuing your dream,” Bennett said at the time. “Race wasn’t going to be an issue for me.”

Bennett started his resignation email by listing USM’s accomplishments under his administration, from “facilitating tremendous growth all along the Mississippi Gulf Coast” to “stabilizing the University’s overall financial position.” 

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Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today. She works in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization focused on investigating higher education. Originally from Melbourne Beach, Florida, Molly reported on public housing and prosecutors in her home state and worked as a fact-checker at The Nation before joining Mississippi Today. Her story on Mississippi's only class on critical race theory was a finalist for the Education Writers Association National Awards for Education Reporting in 2023 in the feature reporting category.