Bennett visits campus, IHL to announce decision
Published: Thursday, February 7, 2013
Updated: Thursday, February 7, 2013 00:02
The preferred candidate chosen to take the reins at USM has wanted to be a college president since his undergraduate days at Middle Tennessee State University, and today he will introduce himself to the community of students and faculty he will likely serve as the tenth president of the University of Southern Mississippi.
“The thing I’m really looking forward to is letting people see who I really am,” Rodney Bennett said in an interview at the Ogletree House Wednesday night. “I want people to get to know the passion I have for higher education and helping young people be successful.”
Bennett was announced as the preferred candidate for the USM presidency Friday by the state’s Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees after a 20-step process that began when Martha Saunders abruptly resigned in April 2012, a process that will most likely end today.
Beginning at 8 a.m. Bennett will speak at forums for faculty, staff, students and community members this morning in the Thad Cochran Center Room 218, and the IHL Board of Trustees will meet at 12:30 p.m. followed by a press conference at 1 p.m. concerning Bennett’s selection.
“You’re not going to find a person more excited than I am about being here,” Bennett said. “I feel like I’ve been sent here for a specific purpose; I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Bennett currently serves as the Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Georgia.
“I am extremely proud to see another University of Georgia vice president chosen to serve in a presidential position,” UGA President Michael Adams told “The Red & Black,” the university’s newspaper. “Rodney brings a breadth of experience, talent and dedication to his work, and I wish him well as he begins this new leadership role.”
Though Bennett was not sure of when he would make the move from Athens, Ga. to Hattiesburg, he said he will most likely come sometime in March. However, despite uncertainty surrounding his starting date, Bennett knows that one of his first official actions as president will be to hire a chief financial officer for the university.
“That is the head business person who keeps up with money coming in and out and makes sure we don’t overspend,” Bennett said. “We don’t have a person in that role permanently, so my first order of business will be hiring a chief financial officer.”
Since his announcement Friday, Bennett has been making national headlines for possibly being the first black president of a major Mississippi university.
For Bennett, however, the historical significance of his hiring is not something he wants to focus on.
“I was a little concerned that the focus was going to shift from what it really should have been about, and that was really providing high quality higher education to students,” Bennett said. “Most students are thinking about the cost of attendance and of getting a degree, not whether or not we have the first black president.”
Hank Bounds, Commissioner of Higher Education, said the choice to hire Bennett had nothing to do with his race but everything to do with his qualifications.
“I really don’t care the color of their skin, whether they’re short or tall,” Bounds said Wednesday night. “We were looking for talent and Rodney fit that bill.”
Bounds added that everyone who has had the chance to meet Bennett has quickly become a supporter.
“If you just spend a few minutes with the guy you quickly recognize that he’s brilliant, quick on his feet and has a real passion for students,” Bounds said. “He has very good experiences from an institution that has been very successful, so he has had an opportunity to see what good looks like.”
When asked what he wanted students to know about him, Bennett said he is the type of university leader who will be hanging out in Subway and the Fresh Food Company.
“I want students to feel like I’m their president, and I’m not this mystical person in the dome removed from day to day student life,” Bennett said. “I want to be in the residence halls and at Greek Life functions.”
“Southern Miss has diversity of majors, small classes and plenty of outlets for social activities,” Bennett said. “When I found out this job was available I thought it was the perfect place. I knew someone needed to become president, so why not me?”