He’s enjoyed success and weathered storms - literal and figurative - in the last several months as interim president of his alma mater, The University of Southern Mississippi.
Now Dr. Aubrey K. Lucas will return to his roles as President Emeritus and professor of higher education as the University prepares for a new era of leadership under Dr. Rodney Bennett, who begins as president of the institution April 1.
Lucas, who first came to the university as a freshman in the early 1950s from his native State Line, Miss., said it has been a busy but rewarding experience leading the university following the resignation of President Martha Saunders, who stepped down June 30, 2012.
“We’ve dealt with the presidential transition and worked on our athletic leadership, along with other challenges, including the search for a new president and then later the impact of the (Feb. 10) tornado,” he said.
But he also pointed to many achievements at the institution over the last year, including approval of the University five-year interim report on accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in December 2012, an uptick in the mean ACT score of incoming students and one of the largest freshmen classes ever at the university.
Lucas also expressed joy at the success of the Southern Miss basketball team this past season, including its run in the National Invitation Tournament which reminded him of the university’s NIT championship team of 1987.
Quick to credit others, he pointed to a dedicated faculty, staff and student body for the institution’s successes during his leadership. “We’ve experienced times of challenge, but also of celebration,” he said.
Lucas first led Southern Miss as its president from 1975-1996, after previously serving as president of Delta State University for four years. He agreed to the IHL’s request to serve as interim president following the resignation of Dr. Martha Saunders in April of 2012. He also served in the same role between the presidencies of the late Dr. Horace Fleming and Dr. Shelby Thames from July 2001 to May 2002. From October 2008 to July 2009, he was Interim Commissioner of Higher Education.
He hesitated initially when the IHL board approached him about serving as interim president, which he also did between the administrations of the late Horace Fleming and Shelby Thames from 2001-2002.
“I was concerned about the possible limitations that came with my age (Lucas is 78) when the IHL board insisted I take on the role, but I decided that I felt good and had the energy and willingness to offer my services,” he said. “When you’ve been in higher education as long as I have, you love it.”
“Dr. Aubrey Lucas is the quintessential university president,” said Dr. Hank M. Bounds, Commissioner of Higher Education. “Throughout his career, he has demonstrated grace under pressure, humor in the face of adversity and a deep love for the university and its students. The Board of Trustees and I are extremely grateful that he was, once again, willing to step in and serve as Interim President and provide a steady hand and thoughtful guidance during a critical time. His leadership skills stand as a shining example to all of us.”
Lucas said he’s enjoyed working with his executive cabinet in the last year, and thanked Dr. Tom Estes for returning to serve on an interim basis as vice president for finance and administration. Estes served in the same role during Lucas’ first administration and at Mercer University. “His vast experience has been so helpful to us,” Lucas said.
He’s also pleased with the naming of Dr. Rodney Bennett as the institution’s new president. Bennett comes to Southern Miss from the University of Georgia where he served as vice president for student affairs. Bennett is the first African American to be named president at one of Mississippi’s predominantly white universities.
“His happy disposition and keen ability at understanding people and issues make him a delightful addition to our university,” Lucas said of Bennett. “I have enjoyed welcoming him and introducing him to this wonderful place.”
Dr. Mary Ann Adams, president of the Southern Miss Faculty Senate, praised Lucas’ devotion to the university, including his strong support of its faculty. “We really appreciate him being willing to come back and stand in at a time when we needed a leader,” she said. “He understands the importance of shared governance between administration and faculty in working to advance the university.”
Lucas said he will resume his status as President Emeritus and as a faculty member teaching courses in higher education administration in the College of Education and Psychology. He says he will also make himself available as needed for advice and counsel to students, faculty and staff.
“I’m always pleased to serve our university and the state, and I want to continue to do that outside of the administrative capacity,” he said.
Lucas earned his B.S. and M.A. degrees from Southern Miss and a Ph.D. degree from Florida State University. He also holds an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Mississippi College. Prior to becoming a university president, Lucas served as an instructor at Hinds Community College; Director of Admissions, Registrar, Professor of Higher Education, and Dean of the Graduate School at Southern Miss.
He has served as a consultant to other colleges and universities and as president of state, regional, and national organizations. He is active in civic and charitable organizations, as well as the United Methodist Church. A native of State Line, Mississippi, Dr. Lucas and his wife Ella have four adult children and eight grandchildren.
Southern Miss Athletic Director Jeff Hammond said he feels like he’s come full circle at the university in his relationship with Lucas, who was president when Hammond played quarterback for the Golden Eagles football team in the mid-1970s.
“He’s a man of compassion and passion, a man of love for all people,” Hammond said. “I hold his advice and counsel in the highest esteem, and serving under him is something I will forever cherish and value.”
Ann Marie Chilcutt, a junior from Columbus, Miss. and incoming president of the Student Government Association, said Southern Miss owes Lucas a great debt of gratitude for agreeing to lead the university again.
“His dedication, loyalty and service to the university in the last year have really inspired me,” Chilcutt said. “He’s just the epitome of what it means to be a Golden Eagle.”