Dr Bennett's Speeches: Inaugural Address

May 2, 2014

Thank you, thank you so very much.

I cannot tell you how much joy I have in my heart on this special occasion or how much this celebration means to me.  I am so very grateful to share this occasion with my family, with my friends, and with our University community.  Thank you for this moment.

I want to begin by recognizing several individuals whose contributions to my life and career path have brought us here today:

  • Commissioner Bounds – as I have indicated to you on numerous occasions throughout this past year, thank you from the bottom of my heart for the opportunity to lead this university.  Your naming me as President of The University of Southern Mississippi is a clear signal of your desire to transform public higher education in the state of Mississippi.  I will always be grateful for you.
  • President Patterson and other members of the Board of Trustees for the State Institutions of Higher Learning – thank you for the confidence you have demonstrated in my ability to help move The University of Southern Mississippi to its next level of success and relevance.  I appreciate your support and your wise counsel.
  • For Governor Bryant – I will never forget my initial meeting with him.  He was the first person I met during my interviews as the preferred candidate for this position.  I appreciated the warm welcome he extended to me on that day in Jackson and the support he has given to our institution during my tenure here.
  • For Arnett Mace, former Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at The University of Georgia, who hired me as Vice President there – his belief in my administrative abilities was significant in building my own confidence that I have the ability to serve as President of The University of Southern Mississippi.
  • And to President Emeritus of The University of Georgia, Michael F. Adams – There are few words that can adequately describe or convey what you have meant to me for the 12 years I worked for you and the time since then.  You have been my mentor and my friend.  I draw upon my time with you, and the experiences you guided me through, every day that I serve as President of The University of Southern Mississippi.  Your role in preparing me for this position was transformative, and I owe you a deep debt of gratitude.

I would also like to recognize and thank:

  • My presidential colleagues from other IHL institutions;
  • All of the institutional delegates who are participating in today’s ceremony and the colleges and universities you represent;
  • Members of the on-campus selection committee for the 10th President of the University;
  • Members of the USM community who were part of the IHL presidential interview team and who participated in my interviews in Jackson last year;
  • The Inaugural Committee and all event planning staff, with specific recognition for Aubrey K. Lucas and Mary Ann Adams, committee co-chairs;
  • Polly Odom and Christa McLeod in the President’s Office for their work in helping to make this day a success;
  • And the staff of the Physical Plant, to include skilled trades workers, groundskeepers, custodians, and all others who worked to make our campus beautiful for this special occasion.

I am forever grateful to my family who is here with us, especially my mother and father.  Earlier today, Temple and I announced the establishment of a scholarship endowment named in their honor to support students in the College of Education.

I thank my big sister for being here, and I thank my two daughters for their continuous love and support. 

Temple, I thank you for your support of me and for your service as an exceptional and gracious first lady of this institution.

I am grateful to each and every person who has touched my life and led me to this moment, and I am excited to call The University of Southern Mississippi and the city of Hattiesburg my home.

The University of Southern Mississippi is a leader in higher education not only in the state of Mississippi and the southern region, but also throughout the country.  We are at the forefront of academic programs and research, specifically related to marine sciences, polymer sciences, music education, and nursing, just to name a few, and we offer more than 140 undergraduate majors and more than 200 graduate degree programs.  Our students engage in undergraduate research that results in real-world solutions to current problems, and they excel in achieving national scholarship recognition, as evidenced over the past two years:

  • In 2013, one of our students was the only Truman Scholar identified within the state of Mississippi, and two other students accounted for two out of three Goldwater Scholarships that were awarded to students at Mississippi universities.
  • Just a few weeks ago, a student from our Gulf Park campus was named as the only 2014 Truman Scholar in the state.

The past year has brought many changes to our campus and has marked success in several key areas at the University:

  • Across our Hattiesburg campus, we can see the progress of several major construction projects.  I look forward to the completion of Scianna Hall, which will house our College of Business, and beginning construction on Asbury Hall, which will house our College of Nursing.  Century Park South, a new residential complex, will house more than 950 students and will feature the new Moffitt Health Clinic and Luckyday Citizenship Hall.  This project is the largest in the University’s history.
  • This year has been another record year of service for Southern Miss.  Our Center for Community and Civic Engagement reports that our students contributed almost 91,000 hours of service to our community, with their work valued at more than 2 million dollars.
  • Many good things are happening at our vibrant Gulf Park campus in Long Beach and within our other teaching and research sites along the Gulf Coast:
  • During this academic year, the Student Think Center, the Children’s Center for Communication and Development, and the Center for Child Development all expanded services to the Coast.
  • Offering Mississippi’s only undergraduate degree program in marine science and one of only 16 bachelor’s degrees in marine science in the nation, our Department of Marine Science located at Stennis Space Center continues to enhance and enrich its program for students.
  • We are honored to serve as the first Mississippi university to be the primary site for a National Science Foundation  Industry and University Cooperative Research Center.  Our Gulf Coast Research Laboratory leads the Science Center for Marine Fisheries alongside our partner institution, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, to unite science and practice in order to develop effective solutions for “real-world” problems.
  • And of course, the State of Mississippi’s RESTORE Research Center of Excellence is housed in our Center for Gulf Studies, where we coordinate collaborations with all four Mississippi research universities to seek solutions to future energy problems with resources found in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Our students’ academic records demonstrate a move toward greater quality of the student body.  Last fall we welcomed a record Honors College enrollment, with the incoming class demonstrating exceptional student quality with an average ACT score of 30 and an average high school grade point average of 3.8.  Honors College enrollment is up 43 percent since 2007.  Additionally, our 1700 students in fraternities and sororities earned a record all Greek grade point average of 3.08 for the Fall 2013 semester.  This fall, we hope to enroll our best and brightest class yet as we continue to increase the number of students with higher ACT scores.
  • Our faculty’s body of research continues to grow, as demonstrated by faculty accomplishments at the state, national, and international levels.  For example:
    • Department of Chemistry Associate Professor J. Paige Buchanan has been named Chemist of the Year by the Mississippi Section of the American Chemical Society.
    • Department of Dance Assistant Professor Meredith Early choreographed a dance that won regional competitions and will be performed this June at the National Collegiate Dance Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
    • Department of Marine Science Associate Professor Scott Milroy recently learned that his NASA-funded “Pioneering Mars” project has been selected for flight aboard the International Space Station and could help answer the age-old question of whether there is life beyond Earth.
    • AND – The work of two of our current faculty members in the Department of Biological Sciences brought USM an 18 million dollar renewal grant from the National Institutes of Health that will support further research in a broad range of biomedical-related areas that are of great interest to the state of Mississippi, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, teen pregnancy, obesity, and sexually transmitted diseases.  This grant renewal brings the project total to 54 million dollars.
  • We as an institution are committed to student success.  We recently began cultivating a culture of student success through programming and initiatives intentionally designed to meet our students where they are and help them reach their full potential.
  • Just a few weeks ago, this spring’s legislative session closed, and I am extremely grateful for the level of support designated for public higher education in the state of Mississippi and specifically at USM.  Increased funding is a clear signal of the value our current elected officials place on educational opportunities, and I appreciate their help in meeting the needs of our students.

As I think about how far we have come in the year since I was named President, I am increasingly excited about what our future holds.  I continue to believe that our greatest opportunities as an institution lie ahead.  It is my hope that our future will be characterized by growth and development for USM as we begin to redefine and build the new learning environment.

As we continue into the coming year, we will remain committed to ensuring quality across the board, and we will remain focused on four key areas as we create pathways to completion for our students:

  • Recruitment;
  • Retention;
  • Progression toward a degree;
  • and Graduation. 

A newly-formed Strategic Planning Council has begun work reviewing the University’s current vision, mission, and values, and they will also work to develop strategic directions for the University moving forward.  Their work should result in the production of a new strategic plan that will serve as the foundation for goal-setting in each college, department, and unit for the next five years.

I am hopeful that the Strategic Planning Council’s dialogue with the campus community will result in a strategic plan that complements my vision for the University.  Moving forward, I will be focused on six critical areas.  The University community has heard me talk about these areas for several months, so I will not go into detail today – but broadly, my larger vision includes intentional focus on:

  1. Ensuring Student Success
  2. Expanding Enrollment Strategies
  3. Enhancing Academic Instruction
  4. Fostering Greater Focus on Research
  5. Bolstering Economic and Community Partnerships – AND –
  6. Maximizing Human Potential

I am confident that as we focus on these key areas, The University of Southern Mississippi will become the institution of choice for high achieving students throughout the state of Mississippi and beyond.

For more than 104 years, our institution’s fundamental purpose has remained consistent – to impact the lives of students, their families, and our communities through the high-quality educational opportunities offered here at Southern Miss.  Each of you has the ability to help support this purpose.  We have already demonstrated that when we come together, great things are possible, and I look forward to our future together. 

Again, thank you, Commissioner and members of the IHL Board of Trustees, for this amazing opportunity to serve as President of The University of Southern Mississippi.  And thank you – faculty, staff, students, alumni, family, and friends – for joining us on this historic occasion.