Meridian Star

Local News

February 2, 2013

USM could get first black chief

MERIDIAN —     University of Georgia official Rodney Bennett is likely to become the first black person to lead a historically white public university in Mississippi.

    A selection committee named Bennett as the preferred candidate of a field of three to become the next president of the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

    Bennett is vice president for student affairs at the University of Georgia in Athens.

    “With a student-centered approach grounded in experience in all facets of the university, Dr. Bennett brings a tremendous depth of knowledge of higher education, its challenges and how to meet the challenges to help more students succeed in the classroom and beyond,” said Ed Blakeslee, president of the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning in a prepared statement following a press conference about the announcement Friday. “I believe the Board of Trustees has made an excellent choice for the next leader of the University of Southern Mississippi."

    Blakeslee appointed a Board Search Committee, which included Robin Robinson, chair, Dr. Ford Dye, Bob Owens, Aubrey Patterson and Christy Pickering.

    The Board of Trustees will meet to consider the selection of Bennett as President of the University of Southern Mississippi on Thursday, Feb. 7, at 12:30 p.m. The Board meeting will be held in Room 226 of the Thad Cochran Center on the Hattiesburg campus of the University of Southern Mississippi, located at 121 West Memorial Drive.

    A Tennessee native, Bennett earlier worked at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. Bennett holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Middle Tennessee State an educational doctorate from Tennessee State University.

    Mississippi's five historically white universities have never had black leaders. The state College Board, which oversees those schools and three historically black universities, is likely to vote to confirm Bennett following a campus tour.

    "It is one more significant example of how Mississippi has changed," said retired University of Mississippi professor David Sansing. An author of a history of higher education in Mississippi, Sansing noted that USM was the school where Clyde Kennard, a black World War II veteran, unsuccessfully tried to enroll in the 1950s. Kennard was ultimately convicted on trumped-up charges of theft and sentenced to the state prison. Kennard was released after becoming terminally ill and died shortly thereafter in 1963, months after James Meredith became the first black person to enroll at the University of Mississippi, breaking the state's color barrier in higher education.

    Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds says Bennett was attractive because of his experience managing money and large organizations. Bennett has worked in student administration his entire career

    The school, with more than 16,000 students, has faced financial challenges and turmoil in its athletic department, though officials recently said USM raised more than $20 million from private donors last year, the most ever.

    USM has been without a permanent president since July 2012, when Martha Saunders resigned after a 5-year tenure. Former USM President Aubrey Lucas has served as interim leader of the 16,000-student university since then.

    Saunders took a job as provost at the University of West Florida in Pensacola shortly after resigning.

    The College Board is also looking for new presidents at Delta State University and Mississippi Valley State University.

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