He’s already successfully led the early stages of The University of Southern Mississippi’s recovery from a tornado, and endeared himself to students through a basketball game ticket giveaway, but on April 1, Dr. Rodney Bennett will officially begin work as president of the institution.
Bennett, previously Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Georgia, was chosen to lead the university by the Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning following a national search and a series of constituency meetings in Hattiesburg and on the Gulf Coast on Feb. 7. Bennett’s hiring makes history, as he becomes the first African-American president of a predominantly white public higher education institution in the state of Mississippi.
Bennett brings a strong background in student affairs to Southern Miss. Before becoming Vice President for Student Affairs at Georgia, he served as UGA’s Dean of Students and Interim Associate Provost for Institutional Diversity. Previously, Bennett was Dean of Students at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. He says that all faculty and staff are important to student success.
“Every interaction with a student is an opportunity to create a path toward completion of a degree,” Bennett said. “When you work at Southern Miss, you’re signing on to do your part to help students be successful.”
Student achievement requires the President’s Office working in concert with faculty and staff in the spirit of shared governance to address challenges and achieve goals, according to Bennett.
“I don’t know how to be a senior administrator without involving the stakeholders. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 12 years,” he said. “I’m going to participate in it (shared governance) openly and honestly and transparently. It’s an interactive process, and we’ll need everybody to be full participants.”
Although his official start date is April 1, Bennett’s work at the University began almost instantly after his selection as an F-4 tornado hit a portion of the Hattiesburg campus on Feb. 10. Bennett traveled as quickly as he could from his home in Georgia, and was on-site the following morning to help assess the damage. Two days later, he addressed hundreds of student volunteers assembled to assist in the cleanup efforts.
“He (Bennett) already has such a presence at Southern Miss,” said Student Government Association President Jazmyne Butler, a senior from Vicksburg, Miss. “He understands that whether it is students, faculty, staff or the administration, we all have the common goal of keeping Southern Miss at the top. I'm so excited to see the wonderful work that he will do for our University."
Bennett also endeared himself to students through an initiative that purchased 1,000 tickets for students to the Southern Miss men’s basketball 2nd Round NIT game on Monday. Using private funds secured through contributions to the University, Bennett distributed the tickets to students as they entered Reed Green Coliseum.
Dr. David Davies, dean of the Southern Miss Honors College, concurred with Butler, saying there's a “palpable air of excitement” across the University as Bennett readies to begin his presidency.
“First impressions mean a lot, and Dr. Bennett had succeeded in making an incredibly strong first impression among faculty and students alike all across campus,” Davies said. “Students responded positively to Dr. Bennett's rallying them in the cleanup effort following the tornado, and faculty and staff who have met with him are very impressed."
Davies said now that Bennett has been introduced to campus, he’s eager for him to learn in depth about the many good things happening here. “Supported by a hard-working staff, our outstanding faculty is committed to staying on the cutting edge of research in their disciplines, while mentoring a strong cohort of students,” he said. “I'd put our best students against anybody's, and I welcome Dr. Bennett's leadership as we all strive to make a great place better.”
Bennett earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and a Doctor of Education degree from Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tennessee. He replaces Martha Saunders, who resigned in April 2012 following five years as president of the University.