Southern Miss community reacts to university president’s resignation

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Executive Editor Kyra Lampley and SM2 News Director Charlie Luttrell contributed to this report.

University President Rodney Bennett announced in an email last week to all students, faculty and staff that he plans to leave the University of Southern Mississippi after his contract expires next year, which has sent ripples through the university community. 

Bennett has served for the university for nearly ten years, accumulating a list of accomplishments during his tenure. The announcement shocked many in the student body, who already feel for the loss of their university president.

“We’re all saddened as a university about him leaving,” SGA President Lucas Williams said. “He’s made so many great strides for our institution but he’s going to be a huge asset no matter where he goes and what other institution he becomes president [at]. We’re just sad knowing that such a phenomenal leader like him is leaving the institution.”

Bennett oversaw the university through some of the most uncertain times, including the COVID-19 pandemic and directing a response to the EF-4 tornado that struck campus only three days after he was named president in 2013.

Francis Ogletree (center), the wife of the late Powell Ogletree for whom the Ogletree House was named after, shares a smile with Governor Phil Bryant (Right) as the two of them, along with USM President Rodney Bennett, prepare to cut the ribbon at today’s grand reopening and landscape restoration project celebration ceremony. (2014)

“I am also mindful of all the ways in which we have advanced public higher education in Mississippi. We have made a profound impact across our state and beyond, and I could not be more proud of our work,” Bennett wrote in his letter.

 In 2017, Bennett donated his raise to the USM Foundation, an in-house scholarship outlet for students. One of his first actions as university president was to raise the minimum wage for the 194 lowest-paid employees on the campus in 2013.

Aside from his accomplishments as a university president, students remember Bennett’s quality of being an interactive leader, making himself approachable.

“Dr. Bennett is someone we’ve always really admired here at Southern Miss. He has been a friendly face for years, someone that you’re always going to see around campus walking around,”  sophomore entrepreneurship major Kristen Wilson said. “We are just thankful for all the leadership and qualities that he has given Southern Miss and all of his contributions. We are very thankful for everything he has bestowed upon us.”

University President Rodney Bennett accepts Grand Marshal position for Homecoming.
University President Rodney Bennett accepts Grand Marshal position from SGA for Homecoming in 2021. Courtesy of Southern Miss.

That quality of leadership is what many students have remembered him by in acts such as him joining in conversations or having lunch at Seymour’s with students.

“I think that’s just one of the special things about him because it’s not all the times do you get someone who’s really all about servant leadership and being there, getting his hands dirty and wanting to hear from students and wanting to be there as a support system and showing what true leadership is-not just someone who sits behind the desk in that dome all day, but really is out there where the students are,” Williams said.

Rodney Bennet shares a moment with University Chief of Police Bob Hopkins on the field with those around him as they line up to salute the fallen officers, Liquori Tate and Benjamin Deen, of the Hattiesburg Police. (2016)

Bennett’s presidency itself marked a milestone for the university as he became the first African American president in the institution’s history when he was inaugurated in 2013.

Bennett’s stride as the first African American president inspired others in the university community to pursue leadership roles, including Williams’aspirations.

“I think of myself in my own story, the reason why I believe I was able to push myself enough to get to where I am today is because coming to the institution, getting to see another Black male leader in such a high role, it gave me the courage to say, ‘hey, look, I can push for some of these things as well,” Williams said. 

Dr. Bennett stands for a portrait near the south gate of campus on his first official day as the University’s 10th president on April 1, 2013. Mary Alice Truitt/Printz

Bennett said in his letter that he is working with the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning to develop a transition plan for the university’s next leader. Bennett’s contract expires June 30, 2023.

“Dr. Bennett has built a legacy and built onto the strong history of presidents that have come before him and he has enlightened and heightened the role of the presidency since his arrival,” Eddie Holloway, retired Dean of Students and former Vice President for Student Affairs, said.

“It always brought me great glee to come to the campus to see how beautiful it ways, to peek at the dome and see that Bennett was president so I’m hoping that he fares well and he continues to see the University of Southern Mississippi as a place that he in part helped to build upon all of the years of presidency and administration of the university’s past.”