Dr. Martha Saunders returned to The University of Southern Mississippi in 2007 pledging to “build trust, build a team and build a campus.” After five years of leading her alma mater as its ninth president, she returns to its faculty having done that and much more.
Saunders announced her resignation from the presidency in April and will leave her post on Friday, at which time she will join the faculty at Southern Miss Gulf Coast. There she will also serve as co-director, along with Southern Miss Gulf Coast Vice President and Campus Executive Officer Dr. Frances Lucas, of the new Evelyn Gandy Women's Leadership Institute. Dr. Aubrey Lucas, who previously served as the University’s president for more than two decades, will serve as interim president.
“Some years ago, I attended a new presidents’ academy, where I spent time listening to seasoned executives as they prepared my colleagues and me for what we might encounter in our new roles,” Saunders said. “A member of the faculty told us when we come to the end of our time as presidents, if we have left our institutions a little bigger, a little richer and a little more beautiful, we would have done a good job. I believe I have, at least, done that for Southern Miss.”
Saunders’ departure from the Aubrey K. Lucas Administration Building brings to a close a chapter in the University’s history during which numerous key measures of success trended in a significant, positive direction. At the time she took office, the University was still recovering from the devastation wrought only two years earlier by Hurricane Katrina, as well as from discord between faculty and administration.
Saunders quickly organized the University community through a series of listening sessions across south Mississippi, and together with stakeholders, encouraged a focus on four strategic areas -- A Climate of Academic Success, a Culture of Healthy Minds, Bodies and Campuses, Image Development and Connection with the Community.
Today, enrollment and private giving to the University are growing at record clips; hundreds of millions of dollars in new construction and repairs are beautifying one campus in Hattiesburg and restoring and revitalizing a second in Long Beach, Mississippi; and Southern Miss students are succeeding at an unprecedented level.
Frances Lucas said Saunders’ effect on the University was both immediate and lasting. “In every trajectory that mattered — student achievement, enrollment, fundraising, image development — we went upward, and in a short period,” Lucas said. “She’s just amazing.”
Lucas’ praise has been unanimously echoed across the University over the two months since Saunders announced her resignation. Hundreds upon hundreds of emails, letters and calls of support have reached the President’s Office, while the University’s Faculty Senate passed a resolution that praised Saunders for her commitment to faculty and staff, promotion of organizational and financial transparency, and support of academic freedom and shared governance.
University historian Dr. Chester “Bo” Morgan said Saunders took a fractured Southern Miss community and not only stabilized it, but brought it to the brink of the next level. “It’s a shame she won’t be here to take us across that brink,” he said.
“I hold Dr. Saunders in the highest regard, and it is truly sad to see her go,” said Dr. Andrew Wiest, professor of history and co-director, Center for the Study of War and Society. “She took over the helm of Southern Miss at a particularly difficult time in our history. Her work ethic, positive attitude, and deft personal touch brought Southern Miss back even stronger than it was before. Morale rose, the student population surged, the campus grew and modernized, and both academics and athletics thrived during her tenure. You really can't ask more of a president. We are losing someone special.”
Southern Miss Student Government Association President Jazmyne Butler added that Saunders “put students first.”
“She’s highly regarded and considered a positive, influential role model by so many people at the University,” Butler said. “We’re going to miss her leadership.”
Southern Miss achievements during the Saunders era included:
· The University received increased national visibility, ranking among U.S. News and World Report’s Top 20 Most Popular Universities in 2011, and earning Top Green Campus status from The Princeton Review, as well as a Carnegie Community Engagement Classification and a Tree Campus USA designation.
· Approximately $255 million was allocated for expansion and improvement of facilities, both for academics and athletics.
· Two historic restoration projects, two renovation projects and one new construction project, totaling $24.2 million, were initiated at the Gulf Park Campus.
· The University enjoyed record enrollment, highlighted by four straight years of record freshmen classes, the latest of which was the most academically able in Southern Miss history.
· Texas businessman Chuck Scianna’s $6 million commitment to the Building Better Business Campaign was the largest ever by an alumnus, and was one of three commitments of $4 million or more to the USM Foundation in 2011-2012.
· The University’s role in economic and community development was exemplified through research partnerships with GE Aviation and Stion Corporation.
· Southern Miss students realized unprecedented academic success, highlighted by multiple Goldwater scholarship winners, and Truman Scholar Marie Holowach, who became the first Southern Miss student to win the prestigious award.
· The University’s College of Business entered the U.S. News and World Report rankings for the first time, effectively placing the college among the top 15 percent of business schools in the country.
· The University emerged from uncertain financial times leaner and stronger following an inclusive strategic budget planning process. In 2011, Saunders led the effort to appropriate a salary raise pool for faculty and staff, the first raises many faculty and staff members had received in years.
· A successful Centennial Celebration of 2010 earned the University the highest honor from the Public Relations Society of America, the Silver Anvil.
· Student volunteer hours reached nearly 50,000 annually.
· Campus leaders formulated a Climate Action Plan to achieve carbon neutrality for the Hattiesburg campus by 2040.
· The formation of the President’s Oil Spill Response Team focused a team of university researchers and experts on examining the impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
· Campus master plans were developed to ensure effective and sustainable use of the University’s physical resources.
· President Saunders won the prestigious Stevie Award, a national honor that recognizes achievement of women in business, in 2011, and the Hub Award, which honors outstanding contributions to the Hattiesburg community, a commitment to excellence and a dedication to public service.
· The University continued its outstanding reputation as a haven for the arts, and its athletic programs achieved on and off the field—highlighted by three NCAA championships in women’s track and field, a top 20 finish for the 2011 football team, a trip to the NCAA tournament for men’s basketball, and a 2009 College World Series appearance by the baseball team.
Southern Miss Head Baseball Coach Scott Berry cited Saunders as the best school leader for whom he has worked, a leader who encourages student athletes to be the best they can be in the classroom and on the field. “She holds high expectations, and as a coach, that’s what you like,” Berry said.
Saunders’ expectations, for students, faculty and staff, and even her, will not cease, even though she is leaving the presidency.
“I will miss being president,” Saunders said. “I will miss moving the puzzle pieces around to make scarce resources stretch toward big goals. I’ll miss working with my team—a spirited group of professionals. Most of all, I’ll miss getting up every day, coming to work in ‘The Dome,’ and simply doing whatever needed doing.
“I am, though, looking forward to the next leg of the race. We have made progress, but this is not the finish line,” Saunders said.
About Dr. Martha Saunders
Building on a distinguished academic career that established her as an expert in communication studies and a respected leader of colleges and universities, Dr. Martha Saunders became president of her alma mater, The University of Southern Mississippi, in May 2007.
Saunders came to The University of Southern Mississippi from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, which she served as its first-ever female chancellor. Prior to her appointment at Wisconsin-Whitewater, she was vice president for academic affairs at Columbus State University in Columbus, Ga.
She previously held the position of dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of West Florida (UWF), where she earned the rank of tenured professor of communication. At UWF, she also worked as director of the University Honors Program.
A native of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Saunders earned her B.A. in French from Southern Miss; her M.A. in journalism from the University of Georgia in Athens; and her Ph.D. in communication theory and research from Florida State University in Tallahassee.
She is married to Joseph Bailey, who retired from the telecommunications industry in 2005.