Dr. Bennett's Speeches: Tornado Commemoration: Reflecting on the Past; Moving toward the Future

Feb. 10, 2014

It is hard to believe that it has been one year since an EF-4 tornado ripped a path through Hattiesburg and along the front of our campus.  The days following the tornado were my first opportunity to get to know many of you and to witness the Southern Miss spirit first-hand.  What I have learned over the past year is that each and every member of The University of Southern Mississippi’s community is persistent and determined.  We may face challenges, but we have the resilience and ability, both intellectually and physically, to overcome our circumstances and to keep moving to the top.

We do not lose hope; we do not give up. We rebuild, we restore, we recover.

This morning as we look back on the day that changed our campus forever, I hope that we can also look forward to the future with the confidence that everything we need to achieve our goals is already within each of us.  We have demonstrated that our resolve can help us weather the darkest of storms, and working together, we can face any challenge.

In the aftermath of the tornado, each of us learned what “community” really means.  We volunteered long hours to clean our campus, repair immediate damage, and restore campus to return to classes.  I thank each person who had a role in our response efforts.

This morning I would like to recognize some groups and departments who truly went above and beyond the call of duty both during and after the tornado.  Please stand as I call each area’s name.  I will ask the audience to please hold all applause until I have recognized each group:

  • Thank you to our student body, particularly those students who participated in the campus clean-up, with special thanks to Ned Nelson.
  • Thank you to our faculty and staff, with special thanks to Charles Childress and Josh Duplantis.
  • Thank you to our University Police Department, with special thanks to the first responders on the scene.
  • Thank you to our Physical Plant.
  • Thank you to University Communications.
  • Thank you to our Residence Life maintenance and custodial staff.
  • Thank you to Aramark’s food services staff.
  • And thank you to each person who made a financial contribution to our campus restoration and beautification campaign.

Please join me in appreciation for the dedication and commitment of each of these individuals.

Due in large part to the contributions of these individuals and others, we have made great progress in restoring and rebuilding facilities and landscaping damaged during the storm.  I am happy to report that all restoration projects are on schedule to be completed by December of this year.

I will now invite Chris Crenshaw, Assistant Vice President for Facilities Management and Planning, to provide a brief update on the status of storm-related construction projects.


Thank you, Chris.

I cannot tell you all how pleased I am at our progress not only in recovering from the tornado damage, but also in shaping our campus as a whole as we move into the future.  The past year has been filled with many accomplishments in academics, in student life, and across every aspect of the University.  I believe it is important for us to reflect on where we are now before we think about where we are headed in the future.

I now invite Provost Denis Wiesenburg to share updates regarding academic programs and services.  Following Dr. Wiesenburg, Ann Marie Chilcutt will provide updates regarding student life at the University.  And following Ann Marie, I will provide some general University updates.


Thank you, Provost Wiesenburg and Ann Marie.  I am excited to hear about the progress being made in both academics and student life, and I look forward to seeing what the coming year will bring in each of these areas. 

As I reflect on the past year, I am also reminded of key developments in other areas of campus:

  • Last summer, we welcomed a new chief financial officer, our Vice President for Finance and Administration, Doug Vinzant.  Dr. Vinzant has been working closely with me and others across campus to stabilize our budget and create a multi-year financial plan that will guide our University into the future.
  • At the beginning of the fall semester, we also welcome a new Director of Athletics, Bill McGillis.  I am pleased with the current direction of our athletics program from every perspective – our level of competition, number of victories, management of the department, reputation, and general feel of our fan base.  I am excited to see what the next year brings for our Golden Eagles.
  • Last fall brought us to a turning point with our Army ROTC program.  I am pleased to report that we are continuing to work with the U.S. Army to advocate for our program, and I am encouraged that we will be able to retain and maintain our Army ROTC program into the future.
  • We are also actively exploring ways to recruit and support more students who are active military or veterans and their dependents under the leadership of General Jeff Hammond.
  • Across campus we can see the progress of several major constructions 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 that will house more than 950 students, is on schedule for two of the three new residence halls to open this fall.  The remaining hall, along with the new Moffitt Health Clinic, will open in January.  This project is the largest in the University’s history and will also include facilities for the Luckyday Citizenship Scholars Program.
  • This year has been a year of service for Southern Miss, as our Center for Community and Civic Engagement reports another record year.  Our students contributed almost 91,000 hours of service, valued at over 2 million dollars, to our community.  The University is also included in the United States President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for the fourth time.
  • During this academic year, three University programs and centers expanded to our teaching and research sites along the Gulf Coast:
    • The Student Think Center opened in our Gulf Park campus Library in Long Beach. The Think Center, whose goal is to help students understand their learning personality, offers instructional support for faculty, active and experimental environments for collaborative or individual learning, and various student development activities.
    • The Children’s Center for Communication and Development recently opened a satellite program at Gulf Park. The Center serves children in Mississippi’s southernmost counties who are hearing impaired and are age five years old or younger.
    • The Center for Child Development opened in the fall in the city of Pass Christian.  Their primary purpose is to serve as an academic/teaching and research facility for faculty and students across the university.  A secondary purpose of the Center is to serve children from birth to five years of age and their families in a quality early care and education environment.
    • 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 the program for students planning to enter the field of marine science. This spring the degree program expanded with the addition of marine science instructor, Dr. Danielle Greenhow, who specializes in marine mammal acoustics and bioacoustics.
    • 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 semester.
    • Our faculty’s body of research continues to grow.  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.
    • 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.  A large, representative committee spent several months over the past year studying ways that we can increase student success across the board.  I am confident that the plan developed by the committee will increase our ability to reach students effectively, ensure student success, and improve graduation rates.
    • Two additional committees spent several months studying undergraduate enrollment and our dual campus system.  As a result of the completion of their work, I was able to make some decisions about the management of enrollment processes and the organizational structure of our dual campus system.  My decisions were communicated to the University community on Friday, January 24, with all committee reports made available online along with illustrations of the new organizational changes.  By integrating enrollment processes, academic program management, finances, facilities, communications, campus safety, and technology, we as an institution will be more nimble and responsive to stakeholder needs and will promote clarity, accountability, transparency, and cohesiveness.
    • Additional committee recommendations may be implemented as the school year continues.
    • As a final update, I want to mention that the Mississippi legislature is currently in session, and we are working well with them to secure funding for critical needs.

As I think about how far we have come in one year, I am increasingly excited about what the 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 spring semester, 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. 

Within the next few weeks, a newly-formed Strategic Planning Council will begin 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 the following six areas:

1.  Ensuring Student Success through:

  • Providing support for the implementation of a comprehensive student success and retention effort;
  • Initiating a success curriculum for underprepared students to promote degree attainment; and
  • Increasing student retention, progression, and graduation rates at all benchmark levels.

2.  Expanding Enrollment Strategies through:

  • Enhancing the quality of students’ educational experience;
  • Identifying high-interest degree programs and degree program markets that have the potential for growth; and
  • Developing targeted recruitment strategies to attract top performing students from across the state, region, and expanded out-of-state markets.

3.  Enhancing Academic Instruction through:

  • Identifying and capitalizing on our academic program strengths;
  • Ensuring that all academic program components support student retention, progression, and graduation; and
  • Exploring alternative course delivery formats.

4.  Fostering Greater Focus on Research through:

  • Expanding the depth and breadth of funded research programs;
  • Extending the tradition of quality research production;
  • Increasing the quantity of overall scholarly research output;
  • Promoting undergraduate research opportunities; and
  • Growing commercialization activities that move technological research initiatives from the laboratory to the business incubator and ultimately to new businesses in the marketplace.

5.  Bolstering Economic and Community Partnerships through:

  • Identifying ways to partner with local and state communities in mutually beneficial projects;
  • Initiating an extensive alumni membership campaign to include alumni special populations;
  • Promoting strategic economic development that will attract more businesses to the region and utilize academic research to bolster the local and state economy; and
  • Creating new and expanded employment opportunities for well-prepared alumni. – AND –

6.  Maximizing Human Potential through:

  • Hiring high quality, diverse, and talented individuals;
  • Utilizing their expertise more effectively; and
  • Building staff training, development, and compensation programs to recruit and retain the best faculty and staff in this competitive industry.

Compensation of our workforce remains very important to me.  Last spring we were able to increase the minimum salary of all our employees to $21,000 to meet cost of living needs.  As we move forward, I am still working with our chief financial officer to develop strategies that keep us in line with the cost of living and address compression issues that cost of living raises sometimes create. 

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.  Our fundamental purpose remains 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 shown that when we come together, great things are possible.  I look forward to the coming year as we continue to take Southern Miss … to the Top!