HATTIESBURG – The auditorium grew quiet as members of the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees waited for people in the audience to take the mic at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Tom Duff – a USM alumnus, one of the wealthiest Mississippians and this year’s president of the IHL board – broke the silence.
“This is kind of like church,” he quipped from the stage of the Joe Paul Theater.
The comment illustrated the fervent tenor of Monday’s two listening sessions, the first step in the process IHL will use to appoint a successor to Rodney Bennett, USM’s tenth president who stepped down earlier this year.
Out of about 400 attendees, nearly 55 students, faculty, staff and alumni addressed the trustees, using words like “advocate,” “passionate” and “grit” to describe the qualities they’d like to see in the next top administrator at USM.
As far as many speakers were concerned, IHL doesn’t need to go far to find its next president. Several told trustees they wanted Joe Paul, the interim president, to lead the university permanently. He was repeatedly likened to Aubrey Lucas, who many consider one of USM’s most beloved presidents.
“We need someone who has Southern Miss in their soul,” said Toby Barker, the mayor of Hattiesburg. “We’ve had that in the last three months with Dr. Paul. You only need to look at the positive effect that Dr. Paul has had since arriving on campus.”
Several speakers used metaphors to convey their aspirations for the university and its next president.
The president of the student government association told trustees she’d like a president who knows that “Southern Miss is a destination … not a layover.” A well-known supporter of the baseball team remarked that USM has “a good story to tell, but what we need is a storyteller for our president.”
“I believe Southern Miss is at a crossroads,” said state Rep. Missy McGee, R-Hattiesburg.
In his nine years as president, Bennett had a historic tenure at USM. The first Black president of the predominantly white university, he grew freshmen enrollment and improved retention among the 14,000 student population, helped attain top-tier research status, and twice raised wages for the lowest-paid workers on campus.
While no one blamed Bennett by name, nearly every speaker suggested that USM had not seen its best days under the former president – a perception not always born out by data.
Multiple speakers said they felt that enrollment had declined at the university since the start of the pandemic, but IHL’s numbers show the total student population has actually held steady from fall 2019 to fall 2021.
Nonetheless, some speakers told trustees they’d like the next president to prioritize recruitment, specifically at schools like Jackson Academy and in the Clinton and Madison districts.
USM could increase recruitment by improving support for sororities and fraternities, many speakers suggested. At USM, significantly less students – about an estimated 1,600 – are members of sororities and fraternities compared to Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi, where Greek-affiliated students number more than 5,000.
“The future president may not be Greek, and that’s totally understandable, but I would definitely encourage you all to seek the importance of our Greek community,” said Betsy Mercier, a recent graduate and the advisor for USM’s Delta Delta Delta chapter.
As the smallest of Mississippi’s three top-tier research universities, multiple speakers said they felt USM has long received the short end of the stick compared to its peers – University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University – in terms of funding and prestige.
“I knew that throughout my professional career, that I was – especially being in Mississippi, that because I did not have an Ole Miss birthright or a Mississippi State birthright, I was going to have to work longer and harder than everyone else,” Dave Estorge, a member of the alumni board, said. “I got a chip on my shoulder, always have.”
Billy Hewes, the mayor of Gulfport, told trustees he believes IHL has an “institutional bias” against USM. He said he thought the board had chances in the past to give USM a leader like Mark Keenum or Robert Khayat, but that trustees chose not to.
“Ten years ago we had that opportunity,” Hewes said. “You had some good candidates, including our interim president, who is showing an enthusiasm we haven’t seen in a decade. And so, it is incumbent on this board to find somebody who has those attributes, who can do for Southern Miss what we’ve seen done at other schools, and get us back to where we desire to be.”
Many students, faculty and staff emphasized the importance of increasing diversity at USM. About 61% of students at USM are white and 27% are Black – that has barely changed since 2013, Bennett’s first year in office.
Fred Varnado, the former director of continuing education, said he wanted the next president to “ensure there is diversity in the cabinet.”
Tegi Jenkins-Rimmer, an alumnus and the assistant director of programming, put it this way: “What matters to me in a president now is the same thing that mattered to me when I came to Southern Miss years ago – a president who cares about faculty, staff and students who look like me.”
“We need a president who is willing to give us a voice and a seat at the table,” she added.
Heidi Moore, a first-generation student pursuing a doctorate in higher education administration, said she wanted to speak to trustees from “a different perspective, a poor perspective.”
“There have been moments when Southern Miss has taught me I belong in one area and I don’t get to go anywhere else,” she said. “USM has also taught me liberation, critical thinking skills. I want someone who is so vulnerable, transparent, brave, courageous – someone who sees everyone.”
USM’s next president will need to boost morale among faculty and staff, several speakers said.
Maurine Pace, a staff member in the Office of Research Administration, said that nearly a dozen of her coworkers have left in recent years for remote, better-paying jobs with other university systems.
“The crisis is here today, it’s not two years down the road – it’s here,” a faculty member said.
Denis Wiesenburg, the president of the faculty senate, likened the relationship he’d like to see between faculty and the president to “a dance … with the administration being the prom committee.”
Other repeated themes in speakers’ comments included donor relations, fundraising and economic development. One teaching professor said she’d like a president who would champion a technological innovation comparable to the development of Gatorade at the University of Florida.
Mac Alford, a professor of biological sciences, said he had a different take on the importance of fundraising. The former faculty senate president said he wanted a president who would fight for more public funding, not for private dollars. To make his point to the trustees, he recalled a cabinet meeting when Bennett announced USM had been approved to increase tuition.
“I realize that’s important in terms of the budget, but we are a public institution,” he said. “If we have public goals in this state, we need people in Jackson, and we need you people at the Legislature, arguing … the importance of this institution as a public institution. Because if we’re going to get 10% of our money from the state of Mississippi, we don’t need you guys. We need our own board.”
According to IHL data, USM has increased annual tuition by more than $1,000 since fiscal year 2018, from $8,108 to $9,203 – nearly one-fifth the median household income in Mississippi. This trend is not unique to USM as each of the state’s eight public universities has had to raise tuition rates as legislative funding has not recovered since the Great Recession.
Chuck Scianna, a 1975 alumnus and founder of an oil drilling equipment company, said he viewed higher education as an “investment” and wanted a president with a similar corporate mindset.
“That’s the way I look at it – as a business, not an institution,” Scianna said. “You’re a board of shareholders. Even though we are a public institution, public funds don’t make up 100% of our budget – not here, not anywhere.”
Scianna joked that since Paul became interim president, “I can’t get his hand out of my back pocket.”
In remarks at both sessions, Duff, the IHL board member, said he wanted the community to know the board is committed to a “transparent” search process. He added the trustees will use the comments from the listening session to create a “draft profile” of the community’s ideal candidate – proof the trustees’ would take speakers seriously.
“Oftentimes, IHL is painted by the media and the people as perhaps not caring,” Duff said.
As he spoke, IHL sent out a press release announcing the names of 15 students, professors and alumni who will advise the trustees during the search, including Hewes, Scianna and the SGA president.
IHL has also hired Academic Search, a national firm that is familiar with USM, to assist with the process.
“The enthusiasm and level of desire is evidence to each of us,” Duff said. “This is a very solemn and, candidly, a sacred responsibility on our part.”
The trustees will hold another listening session Tuesday at USM’s branch campus in Long Beach. Members of the public are invited to submit comments for the next nine days at IHL’s website.
Correction 10/4/2022: This story has been updated to reflect that freshman enrollment and student retention, not the overall student population, increased during Bennett’s tenure.