By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press
HATTIESBURG — Rodney Bennett was named the first black president of a predominantly white university in Mississippi Thursday. But in taking the helm, Bennett’s focus was less on his status as a racial pioneer and more on what he could do to bring financial solidity and renewed growth to the University of Southern Mississippi, which has been buffeted by instability.
The 46-year-old Bennett, vice president of student affairs at the University of Georgia, was unanimously named bu the College Board as the 10th president of USM.
Board members applauded Bennett moments after the vote. His wife, Temple Bennett, screamed in excitement over a cellphone after Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds introduced him.
“I just want to thank you all for this opportunity,” Bennett, a Tennessee native, told board members.
Expected to start work sometime this spring, Bennett will make $375,000 a year, College Board officials said.
He acknowledged he was breaking a racial barrier, but downplayed it.
“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 told reporters. “Race wasn’t going to be an issue for me.”
Trustees said they were attracted to Bennett because of the breadth of his experience. He’s solicited donations for projects on the Athens, Ga., campus, taught classes, and managed a budget roughly comparable to that of 16,000-student USM.
“I know leadership when I see it, and when he spoke, I just said ‘Wow,’” said College Board president Ed Blakeslee.
In meetings with faculty, staff, students and alumni before the vote Thursday, Bennett said his first priority will be to improve USM’s finances. He said he would start looking for a chief financial officer within hours of his appointment.
Bennett also said he wants to do more to make sure USM students earn a degree, as well as to attract those with higher qualifications, saying USM can be an “institution of choice for high-achieving students in Mississippi and across the Southeast.”
Other issues loom large at USM, though. Increasing enrollment is one way of easing the financial bind Bennett inherits. Mississippi’s other public universities are putting more emphasis on recruiting students because decreasing state money has left them more reliant on tuition.
Bennett said USM has particular opportunities on its Gulf Park campus in Long Beach, and said focusing on graduate enrollment would be one way to increase revenue.
“When you think about graduate school and you think about graduate enrollment, that’s some real untapped potential,” Bennett told faculty members.
He said raising faculty salaries is a priority, and that it might be necessary to cut some programs to free up money for other priorities.
“What you’re going to get from me is somebody asking those uncomfortable questions,” Bennett said. But he promised faculty members they would get a true voice in decisions, telling them he would be ” an advocate and a supporter of shared governance”
Nicholas Fountain, a junior medical technology major from Moss Point, said he was impressed by Bennett’s pledge to reach out to students. Fountain said President Martha Saunders, who resigned in July after her five-year tenure, often seemed detached. “I honestly am relieved to have someone who is looking forward to being involved with the student body on campus,” he said.
Sharon Herrin, an alumna and longtime USM supporter, had called for an outsider with no agenda during the search. She told Bennett that the university needs relief from the turmoil that some recent presidents have stirred.
“Over the past 15 years, we have had three presidents introduced to us with glowing reviews and within a few years they are dismissed,” Herrin said. “I hope you can learn from their mistakes.”
Bennett worked earlier at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. He holds bachelors and master’s degrees from Middle Tennessee State and an educational doctorate from Tennessee State University.
Mississippi’s three historically black public universities have had African-American leaders, but the state’s five predominantly white public universities have not.
Bennett was chosen from among three finalists by the board that oversees all eight public universities.
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