Dr. Bennett's Speeches: Area Development Partnership

Sept 6, 2013

Good morning everyone, and thank you, Dean Moser, for that introduction.  I am happy this morning to have the opportunity to speak to what I consider to be a hometown group – people who, for decades, have supported the university through our many successes … and maybe one or two, in retrospect, things that we would probably want to do over.  There is just nothing more valuable to me than to be with people who I know truly love and support The University of Southern Mississippi and who bleed black and gold.  Your commitment to the institution is very much appreciated, and we would not or could not be who we are without you.  So – just in case I run out of the time that has been allotted to me this morning, I want to simply say thank you, thank you, thank you.

I would like to introduce three members of my staff who joined Southern Miss over the course of the summer.  Great organizations are led by great teams, and I believe that you win with people.  I want to introduce these folks to you because going forward, you may hear about or read about each of them, and you may also need to call on them – I believe it is important in those cases to be able to put a face with a name.  And so I am happy to present this morning three key members of my staff:

  • Doug Vinzant, Vice President for Finance and Administration, who began work in June and serves as the university’s chief financial officer.
  • Bill McGillis, Director of Intercollegiate Athletics, who began work at the end of July. – AND
  • Tom Burke, Executive Assistant to the President for Administration, who joined my office staff in August and will assist me in the management of key university initiatives and serve as my representative at a number of events.

I am excited to have Doug, Bill, and Tom as part of our team, and I know that each of them look forward to working with you in our partnership to improve the quality of life for Greater Hattiesburg.

I am confident that the coming year will be one of growth and development for USM as we redefine and build the new learning environment.  As many of you know, our university was founded in 1910 and 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.  In fact, last year 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.

As we look forward to the coming year at USM, we have much for which to be thankful.

  • We are grateful to have received several important pieces of funding from the state legislature last spring, and I would like to remind you of that funding:
    • $20 million to fund a new building for the College of Nursing
    • $1.65 million for tornado relief and renovation
    • An additional $1.1 million to replace musical instruments and equipment damaged by the tornado
    • And – $1.5 million to purchase the new research vessel for the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs.
    • The support that we have received from the legislature clearly demonstrates their commitment to the institution and to improving higher education in the state of Mississippi.
    • Our fall semester began just a few weeks ago with residence hall move-in on August 16th and the first day of class on August 21st.  Our incoming freshmen represent the best and brightest class yet, and they are already actively engaged in all aspects of campus life.  I am not yet able to release fall enrollment numbers but hope to do so within the next week or two – but I can tell you that our average ACT score was just under a 23.  We continue to improve in the quality of the student body.
    • Last week marked the full return of faculty and staff to the Gulf Park Campus following Hurricane Katrina with the ribbon cutting ceremony for Elizabeth Hall –
      • The renovation of Elizabeth Hall was a $1.7 million project and is the fifth of five building projects that sustained extensive damage during the storm.
      • Elizabeth Hall houses the programs of the College of Arts and Letters on the Gulf Park Campus.
      • Last weekend we hosted the football season opener here on our Hattiesburg campus.
        • I witnessed great enthusiasm from students, alumni, and fans in The District, at Pride Field, and at The Rock!
        • We were hoping for better results in terms of the score, but this was only the first of many games in a long football season, and I look forward to joining our fans in support of our team and their coaches throughout the season.
        • In August we welcomed more than 50 new faculty members to the Southern Miss family, and I am excited about our new potential for growth in teaching and research.
        • I am delighted to report that the work of two of our current faculty members in the Department of Biological Sciences brought USM an $18 million 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 research, diabetes research, heart disease, teen pregnancy, obesity and sexually transmitted diseases.
          • This renewal grant is for five additional years and brings the total amount of the grant to approximately $54 million.
          • And finally, our campus construction continues to progress with a total of 23 projects that are either recently completed, already in progress, or soon scheduled to begin.
            • Estimated total cost of these 23 projects is approximately $137 million.
            • Includes tornado recovery as well as planned projects.
            • A few examples:
              • Scianna Hall, new home for the College of Business, is scheduled for completion in Fall 2014.
                • Alumnus Chuck Scianna made a $6 million gift commitment to the $22.3 million project.
  • New building for the College of Nursing is in the planning process and is pending IHL approval.
    • Estimated cost of $30 million.
    • The Asbury Foundation has committed $4 million in private funds toward the project.
  • September 17th, we will hold the groundbreaking ceremony for Century Park South.
    • $55.6 million project
    • That will feature three buildings that are five stories each and have a total of 954 beds.
    • It will also include two key features:
      • Luckyday Citizenship Hall, in honor of the Luckyday Foundation, a great, longtime partner of The University of Southern Mississippi, which has committed $4 million to the project
      • And the Moffitt Health Center, which will make the vision of Student Health Services Director Dr. Virginia Moffitt Crawford and her family a reality.
      • And I want to highlight the recently completed pedestrian pathway between our Liberal Arts Building and Joseph Greene Hall on the west side of campus.
        • This improvement project was largely funded by the Mississippi Department of Transportation, and we are grateful to MDOT and to Southern District Transportation Commissioner Tom King for their support.
        • In just a few hours, we will dedicate this pathway as the Armstrong-Branch Plaza in honor of Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong and Raylawni Branch, the first two African-American students at The University of Southern Mississippi.
        • The naming of this plaza was initiated last spring by our Student Government Association and was supported by Interim President Lucas.
        • This ceremony is particularly significant, as today marks the 48th anniversary of integration at USM.

I am excited for the future of Southern Miss, and I believe our greatest opportunities as an institution lie ahead.  Our focus this year will be on four key areas as we create pathways to completion for our students:

  • Recruitment
  • Retention
  • Progression
  • and Graduation

More broadly, we as an institution will be focused on student success and institutional excellence in 11 key areas:

  1. Academics – identify and capitalize on our strengths and ensure that all academic program components support student retention, progression, and graduation.
  2. Enrollment and Retention – recruit students with higher quality academic credentials and develop a comprehensive student support and retention effort.
  3. Research – develop strategies to increase quality and quantity of research output – and link research to campus and community initiatives.
  4. Facilities – develop and implement plans to address short-term and long-term facility needs, including new construction, repair, renovation, and space utilization.
  5. Finance and Administration – improve the university’s financial management plan to utilize resources more effectively, with particular focus on classification and compensation systems.
  6. Athletics – integrate comprehensive plans for student success and facility improvements, and develop long-term business strategies that work towards the accomplishment of athletic goals.
  7. Gulf Coast Operations – examine the capacity and program offerings of the Gulf Park campus in Long Beach and all Gulf Coast teaching and research sites – and work toward fully utilizing our potential as a dual campus university.
  8. Public Service and Outreach – find ways to partner with the local and state communities in mutually beneficial projects.
  9. Private Fundraising – increase the amount of private dollars raised each year and begin a new capital campaign, or what is more commonly known today as a comprehensive campaign, to generate new funds, but also to be able to fund new strategic institutional priorities.
  10. Alumni Relations – initiate an extensive alumni membership campaign and create outreach opportunities for alumni special populations. – AND –
  11. Economic Development – ensure that USM is instrumental in bringing more business opportunities to the region.

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 the surrounding region.

I am proud of USM’s longstanding history with each of you and the Area Development Partnership as a whole, and I am hopeful that we, as an institution, will have the opportunity to work with you in your respective fields not only to bolster USM’s collective success, but also to help our students transition from college into their careers.  A significant body of research has concluded that as communities grow in both population and industry, one of the key factors connected to that growth is the quality of their educational system.  Certainly k-12 education is a large part of this, but the presence of higher education and continuing education opportunities also plays a critical role in community development.  Because of this, our goal as an institution is to be as helpful and as supportive and as engaged a partner as we can be in fulfilling that critical component in how Greater Hattiesburg will be more attractive to business and industry.

Each year as we welcome a new group of students and faculty to Hattiesburg, they bring their own piece to the community building puzzle, whether it is cutting-edge research that generates opportunities for commercial product development; a fresh idea for a community service initiative; or a whole family who will visit Hattiesburg among 25 to 30 thousand fans for each and every football game in the fall.  I am excited about their unique contributions to Greater Hattiesburg and appreciate the opportunity to partner with you in developing our campus and our community.

As I know each of you to be leaders in business, industry, and in the community, you can play a critical role in helping USM achieve our goal of moving “to the Top.”  To that end, I would ask you to consider the following:

  • We need your help in recruiting bright, energetic students – so I ask you to speak highly about USM in your interactions with prospective students.
  • We also need your help in creating a path for student success beyond graduation – so I ask you to engage with our Career Services office on ways to connect students with employers and professional development opportunities.
  • And we need your engagement with the university, whether it is with academic programs, cultural arts programs, or sporting activities.  It makes a difference when you are present and actively engaged.

The fundamental purpose of what USM was founded to do remains consistent – to impact the lives of students, their families, and their communities through the high quality education they receive as a result of their enrollment here at Southern Miss.  We look forward to growing the new generation of Golden Eagles as we redefine the new learning environment, and I thank you for your partnership in helping Southern Miss move to the top.