Joe Paul, the eleventh president of University of Southern Mississippi, walked onto the stage at the Thad Cochran Center on Thursday to a standing ovation, a scaled-down marching band and cheers of “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
“Okay,” Paul exclaimed as he took in the scene. “Um, wow.”
The celebration marked Paul’s first public address since the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees cut its executive search short earlier this week and announced that the longtime administrator was signing on to lead the university for the next four years.
In an 11-minute speech, Paul told the audience – which included students, faculty, state and local elected officials and members of the IHL board – that he is committed to serving everyone on campus. He vowed to grow enrollment, expand USM’s beleaguered Gulf Coast campus, bring in more research dollars, improve student life and recommit to shared governance with faculty.
“Together, we are mighty,” he told the crowd multiple times.
Paul credited a number of people in his speech, including his wife; former USM president Aubrey Lucas; high-dollar donors Chuck Scianna and Joe Quinlan; the mayors of Hattiesburg and Gulfport, who were his former students; and the IHL board.
In particular, Paul shouted out Tom Duff and Gee Ogletree, USM alumni and IHL board members who co-chaired the presidential search.
“All I can say to y’all is that Mr. Duff is one persuasive individual, okay?” Paul said. “These two Southern Miss alums, along with their fellow trustees, have displayed courage, conviction and integrity through this process. They have listened and they have acted. They love Southern Miss, as we do, and all of these servant-leader trustees are going to help us take Southern Miss to the top.”
Flanked by several trustees and the IHL commissioner, Duff, who is serving as the IHL board president this year, also received a warm welcome before he introduced Paul. He remarked that the board is not used to a positive reception.
“I’ve got to admit, this is the eighth time we’ve stood up here to have a person selected as an institutional head,” he said. “Mostly, we’ve had folks jeer at us, not clap for us.”
Duff thanked the 15 members of the Search Advisory Constituency for their feedback. The advisory group had been criticized by rank-and-file faculty and staff who worried a lack of representation would lead IHL to pick a president who did not support them. In the three days since IHL announced Paul’s selection, some faculty who were critical of the constituency have expressed support for the new president.
Duff told the audience that during the listening sessions, the advisory group had taken notes during the listening session and provided the board with an eight-page summary of qualities they wanted to see in the next president.
“Not only did they write up the profile, they pretty much told us who it needed to be, and we appreciate that,” he said. “We’ve listened.”
IHL hired a headhunting firm, Academic Search, for $130,000 to aid in the presidential search with the scheduled conclusion of spring 2023, according to the contract inked on Sept. 21. But IHL and Academic Search did not post formal advertisements for the position, IHL’s spokesperson Caron Blanton told Mississippi Today. She added that the board is now in the process of amending the contract.
Duff sought to assuage any criticisms of IHL expediting the search.
“Oftentimes even though we have a path, we have to take responsibility and say no, that choice needs to be this, that decision needs to be that,” he said. “This is one of those situations. And we’ve probably been written up a couple times in the paper, I noticed, as not following our blueprint. But our blueprint is finding the best leader, it’s not following the blueprint.”
Paul’s contract has not yet been finalized; in an email, Blanton said she would provide it to Mississippi Today once it is executed.