STARKVILLE – “Let’s wrap this investiture in maroon and white,” legendary Bulldogs announcer Jack Cristil quipped to near-thunderous applause Friday, moments after Mississippi State University officially installed Dr. Mark E. Keenum as its 19th full-time president.
Cristil is known for “wrapping” MSU sports scores in the same way, and his voice echoed through the historic Lee Hall auditorium earlier in the program as he introduced a succession of speakers from back stage.
The 48-year-old Keenum has been in the president’s job since January after a dogged pursuit of his alma mater’s top position.
Friday’s audience reacted to the investiture with emotion. Both women and men wiped tears from their eyes at various points in the ceremony, which Keenum kept somewhat low-key as he and the state’s other university leaders face serious economic challenges.
Even Gov. Haley Barbour looked tearful as Keenum and his wife, Rhonda, filed onto the stage with him and other dignitaries.
“It’s great to begin with a prayer, a hymn of praise and me getting introduced by Jack Cristil,” Barbour began his remarks, to the delight of the onlookers.
He talked about how special the day was – when a son of Mississippi State comes home to be its leader and to be on the campus where the Haley Barbour Scholarship was begun by former president Dr. Donald Zacharias.
Zacharias has been ill and didn’t attend, but his wife was recognized during the event.
Barbour also talked about his and wife Marsha’s decades-long friendship with the Keenums.
With his governor’s hat on, Barbour began remarks that would echo through the two-hour event about the state’s economic challenges – “troubled times” for agriculture and forestry products so important to MSU.
He said farmers who have lost their crops to this fall’s heavy rains will be looking to MSU for help.
“You’ll have a man who is almost uniquely prepared to give that help and support,” Barbour noted, referencing Keenum’s education, training and USDA experience.
“Isn’t it wonderful that Mississippi State has a president who’s up to the challenge?” the governor added.
Keenum’s longtime boss and mentor, U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, was less verbose, but spoke with deep affection for the Keenums.
“Of all my visits to Mississippi State University, this one will be the most memorable,” he declared.
MSU alumnus Amy Tuck, the former lieutenant governor, was more direct. Speaking as chairwoman of the investiture committee, she began the program by saying, “We’re welcoming back a Bulldog – one of our own.”
Despite the dark economic backdrop, Keenum launched his first major initiative from the podium: State Pride, a $100 million, four-year campaign for scholarships, faculty recruiting and retention, and for the library.
He called on alumni to help him reach these and other goals.
The investiture day began at 7:30 a.m. with a prayer service in the Chapel of Memories, followed by a two-hour public reception in the Student Union.
MSU alumni, friends, politicians and students mingled over pickup food to fortify themselves for the lengthy investiture ceremony.
Many recalled the leadership difficulties at Mississippi State the past several years as its presidents came and went, at least two under strained circumstances.
Gen. Robert “Doc” Foglesong was chosen under student and alumni criticism for his military micro-management style, then left after only two years, saying he’s accomplished what he’d set out to do much faster than he expected.
And longtime Extension Service chief Dr. Vance Watson, serving as interim president after Foglesong, decided to retire in the wake of a scandal involving employees doing free landscaping work for then-College Board President Thomas Meredith, who also decided to retire.
But Friday was all about the Keenums and Mississippi State.
Just before College Board President Scott Ross of West Point administered the oath of office, he departed from his script and said to Keenum, “When we walked this campus together so many years ago, I don’t think we ever imagined to be standing here together today.”
In his acceptance address, Keenum expressed thanks “to the people who helped me become what I am today.”
He pledged a continued commitment to student diversity, to gaining a Phi Beta Kappa chapter to recognize outstanding Humanities students, to serving veterans’ education needs and to becoming a Top 5 research university, despite the likelihood of continued budget cuts ordered by Barbour because of declining state revenues.
“We know it may get worse before it gets better,” Keenum said. “But we do not despair.
“We may even find a silver lining in these dark hours.”
And he pledged a legacy of service for the 131-year-old land-grant school, which he labeled the state’s “flagship research university.”
As he wrapped up his remarks, he turned and looked at the dozens of students seated on the stage, representing MSU’s academic colleges and organizations.
“When I look at them, my optimism about our future soars,” he said, terming them the “next greatest generation.”
The invocation came from Pastor Neddie Winters of Mission Mississippi, a multi-racial Christian group based in Jackson, which works for racial reconciliation.
In his prayer, he asked God’s blessing on the university and Keenum, especially to “light the eyes of understanding.”
Blake Jeter, Student Government Association president, read a congratulatory letter from former President George W. Bush, for whom the Keenums worked in Washington, D.C.
Bush termed Keenum a “principled leader” and expressed his gratitude for his “hard work,” saying Bush and his wife, Laura, “send our appreciation and best wishes.”
Dr. Hart Bailey, president of the Faculty Senate, told Keenum of his pride at having an MSU alumnus at their alma mater’s helm, noting more than one-third of the faculty graduated from State.
“Under your leadership,” Bailey said, “may they proclaim that this time was truly a time of service to this university.”
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Patsy’s blog, From the Front Row, on NEMS360.com.
Patsy R. Brumfied/NEMS Daily Journal