MSU's new leader navigates tough financial times

About MSU:
* Retains 85 percent students from freshman to sophomore years, the state’s highest rate.
* Graduates 60 percent of its students who start as freshmen.
* Has 113,000 living alumni, whom Keenum aims to reach for expanded financial support.
* Raised $462 million by its State of the Future campaign.
* SOURCE: President Mark Keenum

By Patsy R. Brumfield
Daily Journal
TUPELO – Mississippi State University will try to outrun this recession, said new President Dr. Mark Keenum.
His plan:
* To grow student enrollment.
* To bring greater alumni investment.
* To use federal stimulus money to help ease expected budget cuts.
“We’re actually running ahead of where we were last year,” he told a Daily Journal Editorial Board on Monday about alumni giving.
Keenum, an MSU alum, will enter his fourth month soon as MSU’s 19th president. He was hired last fall after several short-term presidencies that left alumni, students and the community wondering when they’d ever find a longtime leader.
The Starkville native says that’s him. “It’s hard to get the smile off my face,” he said about his new job. “I love it.”
Keenum said he’s adjusting to the 24/7 pace of being Top Bulldog.
“It’s invigorating,” said the 48-year-old former U.S. under-secretary of agriculture and ex-chief of staff to Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran.
He also spoke to the Tupelo Rotary Club, telling them about his goals for the land-grant university.
Student recruitment is an early priority for him, not only to build the Bulldog Faithful but to build campus finances, he said.
His goal is to boost enrollment from its current 18,000 to 22,000 by 2015.
Keenum is enthusiastic about the melding of the campus with the City of Starkville through development of the $213 million Cotton Mill Marketplace. On the site of MSU’s old physical plant, it will feature a conference center/hotel, retail and residential area.
“It will totally transform that side of the city,” he predicted.
Keenum’s also cautiously optimistic about the university’s financial picture during the economic downturn, saying he thinks MSU can absorb the pressures while still hiring faculty.
The university expects to receive about $75 million in new federal appropriations in the coming fiscal year.
One consequence of the tough times is the economic hit to campus endowments that fund scholarships.
“It’s a priority to alumni to provide a bridge fund,” Keenum explained, “so that when endowments go down … we can have a bridge to make these scholarships whole.
“We’re getting resources to help us do that.”
Taking the right steps to meet growth is a priority.
Keenum has asked for development of a master plan to navigate the growth with benchmarks on what needs to be done and when to make it work.
While competition among the state’s universities is healthy, Keenum said, he’s not planning to rush to provide duplicate services where other four-year schools exist.
“If we have a unique course that’s not being taught in a certain region,” he added, “we would respect that school’s leader and tell them our plans, maybe invite them to participate with us.”
He said he’s working with Ole Miss’ Robert Khayat and Southern Miss’ Martha Saunders about how they can work together to promote higher education in Jackson or in the nation’s capital.
“We can see opportunities,” he said. “So far, it’s been very positive.”
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com.

Patsy R. Brumfield/Daily Journal