The Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning voted recently to extend the contract of University of Southern Mississippi President Dr. Rodney D. Bennett following a careful review of the university under his leadership.
“Dr. Bennett’s leadership has been a tremendous advantage for Southern Miss,” said Trustee Aubrey Patterson, President of the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning. “From leading the recovery effort after the tornado to numerous other building and beautification projects on both the Hattiesburg and Gulf Park Campuses, he has provided students with an excellent environment in which to live and learn. His focus on the students is evident in the progress made during his tenure.”
Dr. Bennett was named the 10th president of the University of Southern Mississippi on February 7, 2013 and began serving in the role in April 2013. He was formally sworn in on May 2, 2014.
“I remain grateful to the IHL Board of Trustees for granting me the opportunity to serve as President of The University of Southern Mississippi two years ago, and I am proud of the outstanding work we have been able to accomplish during that time,” Bennett said. “I am excited to have been offered this 2-year contract extension, which will allow us to continue providing high-quality education and research programs while strengthening our trajectory of recruiting, enrolling, and graduating high achieving students as we meet the needs of the state of Mississippi and beyond.”
On February 10, 2013, a devastating tornado struck the University of Southern Mississippi campus in Hattiesburg. Although the storm occurred just three days after Dr. Bennett was named president and almost two months before he officially took office, he traveled through the night from his home in Georgia to Hattiesburg to lead the recovery efforts. Despite being on break, hundreds of students gathered on campus a few days after the tornado to begin clearing debris left on the campus by the storm. His impromptu speech to the students inspired and challenged them to make a difference.
“Students relate very well to Dr. Bennett,” said Southern Miss Student Government Association President Jeffrey George. “It is obvious to every student Dr. Bennett meets that he cares about them—that can be a challenge for some university presidents. But he’s already demonstrated his genuine commitment to the success of the individuals who study and work at Southern Miss.”
In addition to dealing with the immediate tasks of the tornado recovery efforts, Dr. Bennett has established a clear vision for Southern Miss to build a high quality public research university that will be the institution of choice for high achieving students throughout the state of Mississippi, the Gulf South region, and beyond; and to ensure that everything the university does will create pathways to degree completion, with particular focus on recruitment, retention, progression towards a degree, and graduation.
“Dr. Bennett places an emphasis on ensuring that all Southern Miss students graduate and are prepared to enter the workforce and be the leaders and entrepreneurs of tomorrow,” said Trustee Dr. Doug Rouse, a member of the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning. “This emphasis benefits each individual student, their families, and their future as well as our state.”
During his tenure, Dr. Bennett has formed a Strategic Planning Council to engage stakeholders in strategic institutional conversations about the potential components of a long-term strategic plan; provide recommendations for updating the University’s current Vision, Mission, Values, and Plan; and develop recommendations for institutional Strategic Priorities and Strategic Initiatives moving forward.
A cornerstone of his plans to take Southern Miss to the top is a comprehensive student success initiative, which he has sought new revenue sources to fund. In Fall 2014, USM welcomed the most academically talented freshmen class in the institution’s recorded history.
In Fall 2014, 14,845 students were enrolled, slightly below the total from Fall 2013, when Southern Miss enrolled 15,249 students. With an average GPA of 3.26, Fall 2014 freshmen also extended a five-year streak of rising grade point averages. In Fall 2013, the average high school grade point average of a first-time freshman was 3.21, up from 3.18 in Fall 2012, 3.15 in Fall 2011, 3.08 in Fall 2010, and 3.06 in Fall 2009. The Fall 2014 freshman class had an average ACT score of 22.5, the highest known in University history.
“Dr. Bennett’s immediate focus on student retention and success, academic classroom excellence, competitive research growth, integrity/values of all USM personnel, and continual enhancement of our campuses and facilities is leading to remarkable improvements in productivity and solidarity within the entire USM community,” said Dr. Jeffrey Wiggins, director of the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials. “I am certain the first two years of Dr. Bennett's appointment have put USM on the proper pathway for substantial growth and excellence, and we are just beginning to realize the positive impacts his leadership is bringing to the USM community."
In addition, Dr. Bennett has implemented organizational changes to streamline academic program management, finances, facilities, enrollment management functions, campus safety, communications, and technology. He has developed a multi-year financial management plan and implemented revised business processes for strategic growth.
Dr. Bennett has also demonstrated a commitment to provide services to benefit students, faculty and staff at The University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Park campus. Three buildings on the campus have been renovated to serve as a Fitness Center, Health Center and new facility to house the School of Social Work. Other improvements on the Gulf Park campus include completion of the renovation of Elizabeth Hall and the creation of the Administration Building Plaza, greenspace created where the Administration Building stood prior to Hurricane Katrina.
During his time in office, Dr. Bennett has advanced numerous construction and facility improvement projects, including the completion of repairs sustained during the February 2013 tornado and completion of the renovations of College Hall and the transformation of Lake Byron.
Prior to being named President of the University of Southern Mississippi, Dr. Bennett served as Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Georgia, where he was actively involved in all facets of student life, from improving facilities to creating service learning opportunities and celebrating the spirit of diversity on campus. He helped raise funds to enhance student life on campus and improved communications with faculty, staff, students and parents on the Athens campus and three UGA extended campuses.
Dr. Bennett served as Chair of the UGA Athletic Association NCAA Recertification process, including the institutional self-study. In addition, he was a member of the on-site committee for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, reviewing compliance areas related to student life and student affairs.
Dr. Bennett holds a Doctor of Education Degree in Educational Administration from Tennessee State University in Nashville, a Specialist in Education Degree and a Master of Education Degree in Educational Administration from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mass Communication from Middle Tennessee State.
“Working with Dr. Bennett has been a pleasure,” said Dr. Jim Borsig, Commissioner-Elect. “He is constantly thinking about the students, how to meet their diverse needs and help each one succeed. He is also very much aware of the role that the University of Southern Mississippi plays in the region and is focused on providing the programs and services to attract and retain businesses.”