Lucas will officially become interim president July 1 but will begin the transition immediately, a news release from the board said. Saunders, who became USM's ninth president in 2007, said last month that she would step down June 30 to join the faculty at the USM Gulf Coast campus in Long Beach.
"We are very pleased that Dr. Lucas has agreed, once again, to take on the role of leading the University of Southern Mississippi," said Hank M. Bounds, commissioner of higher education. "His love for the university is without question and his thoughtful leadership style will be an asset to the university and the system as a whole."
Lucas was the school's sixth president. He held that position for 21 years, and remains a professor of higher education there. He also was acting president for eight months in 2001 and 2002 after his successor, Horace Fleming, turned down the one-year contract extension he was offered rather than a standard four-year contract.
"Dr. Aubrey Lucas is the epitome of an educator and a scholar," said Ed Blakeslee of Gulfport, president of the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning. "His vast knowledge of higher education, and particularly the University of Southern Mississippi, will serve the university well during this transition period."
Lucas is a graduate of USM, where he also earned his master's degree. After getting his doctorate from Florida State University, he was an instructor at Hinds Community College, and then held several positions at USM before becoming president of Delta State University.
After four years there, he returned to USM. He retired as president at the end of 1996, saying it was time for someone new to take the position, and was given the title president emeritus.
Saunders' departure was the third high-profile vacancy at the university, following that of the athletic director and men's head basketball coach. Saunders said that didn't affect her decision.
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.
"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.