Dr. Rodney Bennett, who on Thursday became the next president of The University of Southern Mississippi, said one of his primary duties as the school’s leader will be helping its students succeed in meeting their academic goals through “pathways for completion.”
Bennett, currently Vice President of Student Affairs at The University of Georgia, was selected by the State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) Board of Trustees as the institution’s 10th president following a national search. He is the first African-American to lead the university or any of the state’s historically white institutions of higher learning.
IHL Board President Ed Blakeslee announced Bennett as Southern Miss’ next president following a series of listening sessions attended by students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members.
“Students today face many challenges,” Bennett said, citing financial, work and family circumstances and obligations, among others. “We need to work together as a university community to help them overcome those challenges and secure their degree.”
Bennett, 46, will assume the presidency toward the end of the current semester, succeeding Dr. Aubrey K. Lucas, the university’s interim president. “We are indeed fortunate to have Dr. Bennett as our new president,” Lucas said. “He obviously has a God-given talent for relating to people, and with that talent and his experience and the support we are going to provide, he can be very successful.”
Lucas is serving his second stint as interim president after having served as the University’s sixth president for 21 years (1975-1996).
Mary Beth Wolverton, a sophomore from Hattiesburg, and Don Holmes, a junior from Osyka, Miss., liked what they heard from Bennett during the student listening session.
“He’s very committed to communicating with the student body, and working together with both students and faculty,” said Wolverton.
“He’s open, honest and knowledgeable, and I’m extremely impressed with his resumé,” said Holmes, a junior from Osyka, Miss. “He’s very qualified to lead our university.”
Based on the input he’s received from Southern Miss constituents, Bennett is confident the university can reach new and greater heights of success. “I feel very encouraged about our future after meeting with the various members of the university community, who all want this institution to become an even better place,” he said.
Dr. Kimberley Davis, an associate professor of music, said she looks forward to the university’s students, faculty and staff supporting its new president in meeting that goal. “I believe we will all pull together behind Dr. Bennett and really move Southern Miss to the top,” she said.
Sheri Rawls, director of the university’s Learning Enhancement Center, said Bennett is “a great communicator and really enthused about being our new president.”
Becky Montague, a member of the university’s Partners for the Arts who attended the listening session for community members, concurred. “He’s very likeable and put everyone at ease (in the listening session for community members),” Montague said. “He’s very enthusiastic about being at the university and in Hattiesburg.”
Southern Miss Athletic Director Jeff Hammond said he’s excited about what the future holds with Bennett as president. “He really ‘wowed’ me in our meetings,” Hammond said. “He’s a real leader. Today marks our march forward in continuing the greatness of the university with Dr. Bennett leading the way.”
Bennett said he’s grateful for the opportunity and excited about the task ahead. “This is just one of those moments in life that you dream about and hope and pray that one day will come true, and I’m so happy my dream has come true in Hattiesburg, Miss. at The University of Southern Mississippi.”
Preferred Presidential Candidate Constituency Sessions, Feb. 7