- USM had economic impact over $663 million between 2017 and 2019
- Bennett turned down significant raise to fund scholarships at USM
- Newly named president, Bennett stepped up when tornado ravaged USM campus
When Rodney Bennett interviewed to fill the vacancy in 2013 at the University of Southern Mississippi’s president’s office, he was given a mission.
The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees told Bennett his mission would be to bring financial stability to the university.
Now that the mission is accomplished and a few other projects are complete, it’s time to step aside and let someone else take the reins.
Interim president named:Southern Miss begins leadership transition as Rodney Bennett steps down
“In January of 2013, when I was candidate Rodney Bennett, I interviewed understanding that a certain number of realities for Southern Miss were going to have to be addressed,” Bennett said in an interview with the Hattiesburg American. “At that time, as candidate Rodney Bennett, I was really focused on accomplishing and moving the needle on some of the concerns that were presented to me through the very rigorous interview process.”
When Bennett took the helm at Southern Miss in 2013, he had a lot of fires that needed to be put out at the same time, including:
- The university did not have a permanent chief financial officer.
- There was no director of permanent intercollegiate athletics.
- Enrollment numbers were down.
- Student retention was not where the university wanted it to be.
- Southern Miss’ budget “was all over the place, with no real plan,” Bennett said.
“I don’t believe the confidence in the university was where it is now with regard to the system office, the Legislature and our partners in Washington,” Bennett said. “I’m not sure that alumni engagement and donor support was where it needed to be.”
The IHL board gave candidate Bennett a list of expectations to accomplish should he become president Bennett. With those expectations and many others in place, Bennett was named Southern Miss president on Feb. 7, 2013.
“I was really excited about that challenge,” he said.
Tornado changed the landscape, created more challenges
Bennett, 55, initially planned to start in July 2013, but just three days after he was named university president, a devastating tornado touched down in Hattiesburg, causing significant damage to the city and the university.
Although Bennett wasn’t supposed to start at Southern Miss until that summer, he immediately returned to Hattiesburg to begin work on restoring the Hattiesburg campus.
“We were grateful that we did not have loss of life as part of that natural disaster,” Bennett said.
The tornado caused over $30 million in damage to the university, which already was struggling with financial challenges.
“This really forced me and those of us who were here to begin walking down sort of a dual path — the path of ‘How do we restore a campus after a devastating tornado’ and ‘How do we stay focused on what the true realities were of the university as they had been described to me as candidate Bennett,” he said.
As Bennett and his team worked on making repairs to the tornado-ravaged campus, they also began to work on the objectives set out by IHL.
“We got to work being very intentional about the agenda the board of trustees and I established that were high priorities for USM.”
Bennett had planned to finish up his work at the University of Georgia before beginning his presidential role at Southern Miss, but the tornado told him otherwise.
He was going back and forth between the two universities, wrapping up his tenure at one while helping the recovery efforts at the other.
“I did not want to leave the University of Georgia in a bind by leaving sooner. I wanted to fulfill my obligations there,” he said.
Then-UGA president Michael Adams offered his and the university’s support for Bennett and Southern Miss. He also told Bennett it was OK to leave Georgia ahead of schedule to take care of the needs of his new university home.
“He said words to me that I really needed to hear in that moment,” Bennett said. “He said, ‘You need to move right now to Hattiesburg and the University of Southern Mississippi. That’s your new home. They need you there leading the efforts.'”
Overcoming financial challenges for more secure future
The University of Southern Mississippi is financially in a much better place in 2022 than it was in 2013, which was no small feat, Bennett said. He implemented a financial sustainability policy that helped the university grow within its means.
Yes, there were times sacrifices had to be made, Bennett said. And there were times when it hurt to make cuts, but in the long run, it paid off.
“At the very core of my service here has been good stewardship of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “We think about what would a taxpayer in Mississippi think about what we are doing and how we are spending their hard-earned top tax dollars. And we had good people (at USM) who shared that philosophy.”
The same should be said for the university’s alumni, donors and supporters, Bennett said. Their contributions deserve the same respect.
More:Southern Miss President Rodney Bennett announces he will leave at end of contract in 2023
In addition to getting the university’s spending under control, USM has been able to set aside funds to have ready money if needed.
The university, per IHL policy, is required to have a minimum of 90 days’ cash on hand. Bennett said Southern Miss has at least 160 days’ cash on hand.
“That’s significant when you think about where the university had been in terms of its finances,” he said.
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As a result of careful planning and budgeting, the university’s financial success has benefited the community as well. The university’s footprint in Mississippi has grown in recent years, with an economic impact of more than $663 million from 2017 to 2019, according to a report released by the university in October.
The study, conducted by the Trent Lott National Center for Excellence in Economic Development and Entrepreneurship, was independently verified by IMPLAN Inc.
It found that the university generated more than $34 million per year in tax revenue, and the overall output of student and employee spending added $565 million to Mississippi’s economy.
“I think anyone who is looking at the university objectively would know that we are not the same university 10 years later that we were in 2013,” Bennett said. “It gives the university a lot more leverage in terms of innovation, creativity, a little more risk-taking.”
Financial success is not only important to keeping the university in good operating order, it’s vital to the educational success of its students.
One component of maintaining accreditation is having the means to implement the programs a university offers, Bennett said.
“Once you lose that, what are you left with?” he asked.
Bennett led the university through times of budget cuts, realignment of programs and other challenges that could have hindered students’ education yet managed to maintain a high academic standard and quality of programming during his tenure.
‘Returning at a higher rate than expected’: USM sees highest student enrollment since 2014
Enrollment has seen significant increases and more importantly, more students are graduating.
Southern Miss has a Center for Student Success that works with students at whatever stage they are in to help them stay in school and someday cross the finish line.
The university has worked on improving its diversity, equity and inclusion for all groups, including its Title IX programs.
Bennett sought accreditation for every program that could be accredited and bolstered support for university research.
Southern Miss is now rated as one of the top research universities, joining about 130 to 140 other universities in the country that are part of the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate Consortium.
“When thinking about where we want to be academically and research-wise, we asked, ‘What is that crown jewel?'” Bennett said. “Becoming an R-1 institution gave us a sort of roadmap against which all of our decisions began to be made, and look at us now.”
Bennett turned down pay increase to fund endowed scholarship
Bennett’s dedication to the university stood out again in 2017, when Bennett turned down a $72,630 salary increase, instead donating the money to the USM Foundation to fund an endowed scholarship.
“I am sensitive this increase comes at a time when so many employees have not received pay increases, have had positions eliminated or have had positions in their units unfilled,” Bennett wrote in an email to the campus community after the announcement was made.
Bennett never wanted the efforts to make the university better to be about him. His mission was to leave Southern Miss better than he found it. And he believes that’s exactly what he’s done.
“I feel a great sense of accomplishment with my service here,” Bennett said. “It was my mission, my service. I needed to be the one to do it. I am 100% at peace and satisfied with what we’ve been able to do over the last 10 years.”
And he wants to share the credit for his accomplishments with the many administrators, faculty, staff, community and other supporters who rolled up their sleeves and worked alongside him, including former vice president of academic affairs Joe Paul, who will lead the university as interim president while IHL conducts a search to fill the position.
“I think they bought into the guy at the top,” Bennett said. “There’s a sense of buy-in that’s been there for a decade.”
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