Bennett Becomes First Black President of Predominately White Mississippi School

HATTIESBURG, Miss. — Rodney Bennett has been named the first Black president of a predominantly White university in Mississippi.

The College Board voted Thursday to appoint Bennett as the 10th president of the University of Southern Mississippi.

The 46-year-old Bennett is the vice president of student affairs at the University of Georgia. He was named the preferred candidate last week.

College Board officials said they were attracted to Bennett because of the breadth of his experience. He’s solicited donations for projects on the Athens, Ga. campus, taught classes and managed a budget roughly comparable to that of 16,000-student USM.

Bennett told campus groups his first priority will be to improve USM’s finances, and said he would start looking for a chief financial officer for the university within hours of his appointment Thursday. He said that he’s been welcomed warmly, with little reference to his status as a racial pioneer.

Mississippi’s three historically Black public universities have had African-American leaders, but the state’s five predominantly White public universities have not.

Bennett was chosen from among three finalists by the board that oversees all eight public universities. USM has been without a permanent president since July 2012, when Martha Saunders resigned after a five-year tenure. Former USM President Aubrey Lucas has served as interim leader of the 16,000-student university since then.