Saunders stepping down as USM president

By The Associated Press

JACKSON— Martha Saunders, the ninth president of the University of Southern Mississippi and its first female leader, said Friday that will step down June 30 to return to teaching.

Saunders, who had held the post since 2007, said she will join the faculty at the USM Gulf Coast campus in Long Beach.

Her departure is the third high-profile vacancy at the university. USM is searching for a new athletic director and men’s head basketball coach.

Saunders said none of that entered into what she called a “personal decision” that it was time to leave.

When Saunders arrived at USM in 2007 from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, the campus was rebuilding from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina two years earlier and was coping with internal divisions brought on by the tenure of her predecessor, Shelby Thames.

“I promised to do three things: I said I would build trust, I would build a team and I would build a campus. We have all worked really, really hard and we made it,” Saunders said.

Higher education officials have credited Saunders with boosting enrollment, turning around the budget in the midst of a recession and raising a record number of dollars for the school.

The school will dedicate a new business school in the coming weeks, and the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast campus should be completed in the fall.

“We’ve had record enrollment, increased fund raising and amazing building projects … and I believe I am leaving Southern Miss better than I found it,” Saunders said.

She did encounter some bumps along the way, however.

In March, Southern Mississippi’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 21 years ended with a loss to Kansas State and an apology from the school’s president about race-tainted chants by members of the school’s pep band at an opponent.

Last fall, an audit raised questions about the purchase and distribution of 700 computer tablets as part of a pilot program. Three employees were placed on leave and students were directed to return the tablets for inventory.

In 2009, the university revoked the charter of the Kappa Sigma fraternity after an alleged hazing incident that left two female students hospitalized.

On the positive side, USM received $4 million to construct housing for students in its Honors Program. And in 2010, the school opened the $28 million Trent Lott National Center for Excellence in Economic Development and Entrepreneurship.

In a 2011 interview with the Associated Press, Saunders said part of the center’s work is to create a climate that provides more jobs for graduates and link higher education resources with economic development agencies.

Saunders said the center also uses USM’s resources to help graduates find jobs, especially ones that would keep them in Mississippi.

Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum said Saunders “provided strong leadership in communicating the message that funding our eight public universities represents a solid investment in the future of Mississippi. She has also always been a forceful advocate for initiatives important to USM students, faculty, staff and alumni.”

Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said an interim president would be named at USM, and the College Board will decide later how a presidential search will be conducted.

Bounds also praised Saunders.

“She has fostered a climate of academic success while enhancing the national image of the university and expanding its national research presence,” he said.