OPINION: University leaders right for the times

If you aspired to be a university president and could have chosen your year to start, 2009 surely wouldn’t have been it. But if Mark Keenum and Dan Jones are discouraged by what they face, they’re not letting it show.
Keenum took over as president of Mississippi State University in January and was officially inaugurated this month. Jones became chancellor of the University of Mississippi in July. They assumed their new leadership responsibilities in the deepest economic downturn of their lifetimes, with state revenues declining and higher education budgets reeling.
The tough economy and looming cuts – possibly as much as 20 to 25 percent over a three-year period – come near the end of a decade that had seen a steady decline in the percentage of university revenues derived from state funding.
The pressure for private fund-raising and grantsmanship on university presidents, already well-established, is now even stronger. It’s the only way they can keep academic progress moving, or at least fend off the worst results of the state financial squeeze.
Yet while Jones and Keenum acknowledge the challenges, they’re not in the woe-is-me mode. They’ve stayed upbeat and forward-looking, even as they prepare for the hard decisions the times require.
Of course that’s what good leaders do in tough times, but it seems the natural inclination of these two men anyway. They believe in the product they’re selling, and they know that their universities have in many ways exceeded what they reasonably could have been expected to accomplish given a long history of inadequate funding in a resource-poor state.
Robert Khayat’s long and successful tenure at Ole Miss was all about increasing the university’s national profile and enhancing its image. By extension, that helped the state as a whole, and it has given Jones the opportunity to focus more on ways the university’s resources can be leveraged to help solve the state’s economic and social problems.
Keenum’s immediate predecessor, Robert “Doc” Foglesong, did little for either the external image or the internal harmony of Mississippi State. That difficult period and the lack of continuity in the string of MSU presidents over the last decade left university alumni and supporters yearning for what Keenum brings: loyalty to his alma mater, the prospect for long-term stability in leadership and well-developed people and political skills.
Keenum and Jones, coming on board more or less simultaneously, seem likely to be leading their universities for many years to come. These are not stepping-stone jobs for either. Their parallel tenures present a unique opportunity for a new era of cooperation that is beneficial to both institutions, to the region in which they’re located and to the entire state.
Both Keenum and Jones have made clear their intention to work closely with the other – Jones referred in a Tupelo speech the other day more than once to “my friend Mark Keenum” – and both recognize that institutional parochialism or turf-protecting isn’t acceptable in these times, if it ever was.
The days of public universities being inward-looking are gone. They must connect in direct ways with not only the students they educate but the broader population they serve. Mississippi State and Ole Miss have only begun to tap the potential that they have in collaboration with one another to help meet the economic and social challenges of this region and state.
Jones summarizes this situation well. The gap between what Ole Miss has achieved as an academic institution and the overall condition of the people in this poorest and least healthy of states is much greater than it ought to be, he says, and that presents what he calls “an opportunity to look for its needs and what we as the flagship liberal arts university can do for our state.” You get the feeling that as a former medical missionary, he’s serious about the university’s work in the “mission field” of Mississippi.
The same can be said for Mississippi State’s achievements versus where the state finds itself. For all the good that MSU has done as a land grant university with a heritage of outreach, there is so much more to do.
Given their druthers, Keenum and Jones might not have picked a year like this one to assume their roles. But nevertheless, each appears to be the right person in the right place at the right time – an intersection of careers that should produce good things for Mississippi.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.

Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal