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Bennett More Than a ‘First’ at Southern Mississippi

Dr. Rodney Bennett is president of the University of Southern Mississippi.Dr. Rodney Bennett is president of the University of Southern Mississippi.

When Dr. Rodney Bennett was appointed president of the University of Southern Mississippi, he anticipated a bit more publicity than usual, but he says he “did not expect that we would still be talking about it from February to June.” As the first African-American president of a predominantly White university in Mississippi, Bennett has garnered significant national attention.

Not only does Bennett’s appointment highlight the state’s progress in race relations, it also leads to reflection on its dismal past. Southern Miss, like its higher-profile sister Ole Miss (University of Mississippi), took extreme measures to resist desegregation. In the 1950s, Clyde Kennard, the first Black applicant to Southern Miss, was sent to prison on bogus charges of stealing chicken feed to keep him from repeatedly seeking admission.

Recent racial incidents in Mississippi have reminded the nation of the state’s history of intolerance. Among them: an angry protest with racial epithets at Ole Miss after the re-election of President Barack Obama last November and, earlier this year, vigorous opposition from the mayor of Madison, Miss., to historically Black Jackson State University establishing a satellite campus in her town.

But Bennett isn’t dwelling on racial issues or on being a Black “first.” Instead, he told Diverse in a recent interview, “Race is something that we can talk about, and it generates interest, but I don’t think that was why I was selected,” says Bennett. “I think [the Institutions of Higher Education Board of Trustees] were looking for someone who can do the work and graduate students.”

In fact, Board of Trustees President Ed Blakeslee says, in announcing the appointment, that Bennett met those criteria. “Dr. Bennett’s experience and his commitment to students demonstrate that he is the right person to lead the university at this time.”

Bennett’s priorities are decidedly student-focused. Topping his list is the university’s graduation rate. “We’re graduating 49 percent of our students after six years, and that’s really not acceptable. I think it’s a tragedy for nearly half to not finish,” he says. “One of the approaches we will take is to really look at how we recruit students, where we go to recruit them and what our message is — what we say to them about the reality of college-level work.

“They need to know realistically what the requirements are for them to be successful at USM.”

Bennett also says he is stressing the importance of academic advising and keeping track of how students are performing throughout their matriculation in order to help students before the obstacles become insurmountable.

A major hurdle for some students, he notes, is student debt, which has risen at an alarming rate nationally in recent years. “Some of it is about educating students to live within their means,” says Bennett. “I’m hoping we can find appropriate ways to have that conversation.”

As the former vice president for student affairs at the University of Georgia, it is natural that Bennett would hone in on student achievement and success. One of his former colleagues at UGA laments his departure. “It is absolutely UGA’s loss and USM’s gain to have him,” says Dr. Leara Rhodes, associate professor of journalism and international communication in UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “Dr. Bennett believes in students and in their potential; … he has always had the students and their welfare as his priority.”

Bennett says he is also focused on increasing enrollment at the two-campus institution. His previous campus, UGA, has 34,000 students. USM’s total dual campus enrollment is 17,859, with 14,815 students on the Hattiesburg campus and 3,044 on the Gulf Coast campus.

Bennett received his doctorate in education administration from an HBCU, Tennessee State University, and his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Middle Tennessee State. He is now leading Mississippi’s most diverse higher education institution. USM’s enrollment is 57 percent White, 30 percent African-American and 13 percent other races.

The 2012-2013 Student Government Association leaders reflected that diversity. Outgoing SGA president Jazmyne Butler, who is African-American, says that, as a member of the presidential search committee, she was immediately impressed with Bennett. “He is so congenial and genuine, and he just loves students,” says Butler. “It’s extremely important that he’s African-American, but I don’t want people to focus on his race; I just want his work to speak for him.”

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