Joe Paul will serve as the next president of the University of Southern Mississippi, the Institutions of Higher Learning announced in a press release Monday. The Board of Trustees took the vote last week during executive session at a monthly board meeting that was held in Oxford instead of Jackson, where the board traditionally meets.
The swift decision – announced less than a month after trustees conducted listening sessions at USM’s campuses in Hattiesburg and Gulf Park – comes on the heels of criticism from rank-and-file faculty and staff about the lack of transparency in IHL’s presidential search process. It also follows weeks of national scrutiny toward USM for its involvement in Mississippi’s welfare scandal.
IHL contracted a headhunting firm, Academic Search, for $130,000 to aid in a presidential search that was scheduled to end in spring 2023, according to the contract inked on Sept. 21. Academic Search was hired to help the board select semi-finalists, conduct reference checks and provide guidance on conditions of employment for the next president.
IHL brought Paul out of retirement to serve as interim president at USM following the departure of Rodney Bennett, the university’s tenth president and the first African American to fill the role, earlier this year. A longtime administrator, Paul is well-known at USM, having served as vice president for student affairs, faculty in the College of Education and Psychology, and as a fundraiser for the USM Foundation.
Paul will initially serve as president for the next four years, according to his statement in IHL’s press release. IHL did not include his salary.
“I want to assure all that I will attack these next four years with the energy and urgency with which I have approached these first four months,” Paul said. “We will chase audacious goals with passion and persistence. Our Southern Miss grit will prevail.”
Tom Duff and Gee Ogletree, IHL board members and USM alumni who co-chaired the presidential search, both cited the community’s feedback at the listening sessions and in an online comment form as a factor in the decision, per IHL’s press release.
At a listening session that Mississippi Today attended in Hattiesburg, multiple people said they wanted Paul or someone like him to serve as president, including Chuck Scianna, a high-dollar donor to USM; Toby Barker, the mayor of Hattiesburg; and Denis Wiesenburg, the president of the faculty senate.
In his statement, Ogletree also noted his personal experience with Paul.
“I have known and witnessed Dr. Paul’s exceptional contributions to the University for over four decades,” Ogletree said. “I recognize Dr. Paul’s energy, relationships, affection and years of service to Southern Miss have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is the right person to guide the University into its next chapter of leadership and excellence in teaching, service and research in the state and nation.”
In turn, Paul said in the press release that he was honored to accept the position and grateful to Ogletree and Duff.
“These two Southern Miss alumni have displayed courage, conviction and integrity through this process,” Paul said. “They love Southern Miss as I do, and they share a vision of the potential this institution has to positively impact our region, state and beyond.”
Paul is the first president that IHL has hired since the board earlier this year approved a series of changes to make its executive search process more confidential. In April, the board voted to make it so search committee members are anonymous, even to each other, and to decrease the role that campus advisory groups play in selecting the president.
In a special-called meeting at the end of September, trustees voted to roll back the change that made the committee confidential so they could announce members at the listening sessions on Oct. 3 and Oct. 4.
But the changes that reduced the advisory group’s role in the process remained. Members of the committee – which was stacked with politically connected alumni, major donors and high-level administrators – were not allowed to know the names of potential candidates. The committee did not include any rank-and-file faculty or staff.
Faculty and staff hope that Paul will approach the role of president in a collaborative manner, a desire that Paul nodded to in the press release.
“I am also deeply committed to creating an unapparelled (sic) student life and leadership experience,” he said. “A spirit of shared governance will be front and center for me.”
A formal announcement will be held on Thursday, Oct. 27 at 3 p.m. in the Thad Cochran Center Ballroom in Hattiesburg.