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Message from the President Regarding Coastal Operations

Fri, 08/01/2014 - 10:01am | By: Rodney D. Bennett

As President of The University of Southern Mississippi, I am deeply troubled that USM's commitment to meeting the needs of the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been called into question. I am aware of the historical tension surrounding access to higher education in the coastal community, and I respect each community member who has worked tirelessly to ensure that the coast is not marginalized or overlooked but is instead recognized as a critical region that deserves access to quality educational opportunities.

It is certainly within the right of each individual to express opinions and to question the intentions of new leadership. It is important for me, as President of the University, to affirm clearly and unequivocally USM's commitment to growing educational opportunities in the coastal region. It is equally important for each concerned individual to listen, to discern facts from opinions, and to understand that as President of the University, I have set the success of our coastal operations as a critical institutional priority. USM is committed to serving the educational needs of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and past performance is not an indicator of our current trajectory. My focus is on the present, and my vision for the future includes a robust USM presence on a thriving Gulf Coast.

The importance of the Gulf Coast region to our state's economy, industries, and potential for future growth and development cannot be understated. Two primary opportunities form the foundation of this significance: the growth potential for the state of Mississippi is along the coast; and we must reduce and/or prevent the state's loss of college age students and individuals seeking higher education at institutions in neighboring states. I believe that USM's operations along the Gulf Coast must offer the programs that will drive the coastal economy, no matter what those programs are.

USM has a significant presence along the coast, with major operations at our Gulf Park campus in Long Beach, our Gulf Coast Research Laboratory (GCRL) in Ocean Springs, and our Department of Marine Science, housed at the John C. Stennis Space Center. Students enrolled at our coast locations have access to more than 50 degree programs, and the University continues to expand online classes to increase access for all students. USM does not receive additional funding for our Gulf Park campus. We must be efficient with our resources while growing our enrollment and advocating for dedicated funding to offset operational costs.

I firmly believe that USM's new organizational structure will allow us to grow our Gulf Park campus and other coastal operations. This structure, announced in January, promotes unity, efficiency, and maximization of resources – and this new model emphasizes consultation between campuses in making decisions while connecting accountability with responsibility and authority. It is important to understand that investments in financial and human capital on the Gulf Park campus have actually increased. Two new associate dean positions have already been added so that all colleges will have an associate dean working on the ground in Long Beach.

As a direct result of the organizational changes, progress has been made in several key areas, including:

• Development of a new institutional focus on the quantity and quality of academic programs offered in Long Beach, requiring all academic leaders and faculty, regardless of location, to invest time and energy in creating and maintaining successful coast programs;

• Integration of financial management processes to improve resource utilization at every level of the University;

Renovations of three existing Gulf Park buildings located on Beach Park Place, which will become a fitness center for faculty, staff, and students; a health and wellness facility for faculty, staff, and students; and a new location for the School of Social Work;

• Successful lobbying for specific funding dedicated to GCRL in the spring 2014 legislative session;

• Uniting business and industry leaders to discuss the potential for greater academic, economic, and industry partnerships in the coastal region at a marine technologies forum held on our Gulf Park campus in Long Beach; and

• Community engagement at the 16th Annual Gulf Coast Beach Bash.

We are making progress, and I am confident that the coming year will yield even more positive impact on the coast community. I look forward to advancing several other initiatives that are already being planned, including:

• Announcing two new developments that will enhance academic opportunities for coastal residents: a partnership with Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College; and a major nursing initiative that will be based on the Gulf Park campus;

• Improving existing facilities, including significant changes to signage and landscaping at the front of campus along Highway 90; two parking lots that will add more than 50 parking places; resurfacing of tennis courts for better instructional and recreational space; and lighting improvements;

• Initiating a national search for the next senior administrative officer to oversee the Gulf Park campus, an individual who will continue to be part of the University's Executive Cabinet;

• Exploring options to restore course offerings in Jackson County;

• Seeking additional funds for GCRL in the spring 2015 legislative session to further restore its budget that has remained static for many years; and

• Advocating for support to address the insurance cost differential for USM due to the geographic locations of our campuses. Currently, our annual facilities insurance premium is about $1.5 million more than other institutions in the state, and as premiums will likely continue to increase, securing additional funding to offset this disparate cost will allow us to focus on other budgetary needs moving forward.

I have spent much of my time during the month of July meeting with business and community leaders to discuss my vision for USM along the coast. While we may not always agree on every decision, I am confident that we will work together to achieve collective success. What I have discovered through my meetings with alumni and business leaders on the coast is that we share many of the same goals for the coastal region. In fact, we agree more often than we disagree.

As we continue to work together, it is my hope that we can engage in productive dialogue face-to-face. I believe that our ability and willingness to come together and talk through these issues will build a solid foundation for the University and the coastal community to become a much more economically progressive area.

USM's fundamental purpose is to impact the lives of our students, their families, and our communities through the delivery of high-quality education and research programs. I am excited about USM's future contributions to coastal resource utilization and workforce development as well as our institutional commitment to forging economic partnerships in coastal knowledge creation. 

I encourage you to learn more about new developments at our coastal sites, and I ask you to share that positive information within your own communities. I appreciate your support, not only of USM's Gulf Coast operations and the development of Mississippi's Gulf Coast, but also for The University of Southern Mississippi as a whole.