The voice of and for USM students


The voice of and for USM students


The voice of and for USM students


Paul outlines yearly priorities

Sean Smith

University president Dr. Joe Paul sat down with the Southern Miss Student Media Center to discuss his plans for the new school year.

Class is back in session at the University of Southern Mississippi. With it, the university’s administration is working to face the institution’s unique challenges. Enrollment has been declining for years, for a number of complex reasons. There are concerns about improving diversity amongst the faculty and the student body. And the recent Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action and student loan debt may complicate issues around diversity and affordability for students.

Read below for Paul’s plans on diversity, administrative changes, and more.

Q: What are your goals for this year and how will recent hires like Lance Nail and Kelly Lucas help you achieve them?
P: “Well, I’m excited about this academic year. We are showing some growth in freshman and sophomores [enrollment]. Really glad to have that top team together. So the goals for this year are to continue to grow our enrollment both undergraduate, graduate, and at Gulf Park; to maintain and enhance our Carnegie Research 1 status; and to continue on the path of upward achievement in private fundraising and athletic fundraising. All of those things while kind of onboarding and pulling that top team together. Over the summer we brought on Dr. Kelly Lucas as Vice President of Research, Dr. Lance Nail as Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Dr. Kristi Motter as our new Vice President of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management. So integrating those folks together, pulling together that vision around growth for Southern Miss. We’re still really focused on enhancing the quality of student life for all of our students as we raise those private dollars to give us some margin for excellence. So that’s what we’re up to here and I’m excited about it.”

Q: Can you tell me more about this “top team,” who is on it and what the purpose is?
P: “Yes. So it was very important to me – you know I started last summer as interim president and then in November was named president of the university. So I knew in January that I needed to build that top team. It’s absolutely essential to growth. So Dr. Lance Nail comes to us Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs. He’s the number two officer in the institution, and he’s over all of the academic affairs…so all the academic offerings, all of that reports to Lance. Lance comes to us with some history at Southern Miss because he’d served as Dean of Business about twelve years ago. But then he had experiences at four other major universities, so he brings both an understanding of our culture and he’s seen things done in other and sometimes better ways. He is a high energy leader. He is student-centered. He is very data-driven, very analytical, so that’s a great strength for my team. A lot of those characteristics are gonna be true of the other two as well. Dr. Kelly Lucas will head our research enterprise. When I say maintain and enhance our Carnegie R1 status, it’s all about the funded research of our faculty and that’s Dr. Lucas’ job. She is another high-energy person. She’s a legitimate ocean scientist, so she’s done research at the highest level. She’s worked on capitol hill, on the legislative side, so she knows where appropriations come from. She’s worked in private industry and in education. So again, another tremendous asset. And then Dr. Kristi Motter, who was here working under me many years ago – nine and a half or ten – as an associate VP, left here and went to [University of] Alabama [in] Huntsville as Vice President of Student Services and Enrollment there, where she helped grow the freshman enrollment by 36% in a five-year period, and now she’s back again. She understands our culture, she’s very data-driven, analytical, high-energy, and she’s gonna help us enhance student life and grow our undergraduate student enrollment.”

Q: You said something about enrollment numbers improving. Can you give some specific numbers and can you name if some strategies that you had implemented have worked?
P: “Sure. We won’t know our total enrollment numbers until much later in the semester. But what we do know is that we’ve got 5% more new freshmen this year than last, and that’s very positive, because it’s in a marketplace of a declining number of high school graduates. And we’ve got a 5% increase in new transfer students, mostly community college students. I know that our efforts last year, the energy that we poured into it, our investment in scholarships – I visited sixteen high schools last year and twelve community colleges, and I hope some of that had a positive impact. But the best has yet to come in terms of really fine-tuning the strategy for growth for Southern Miss.”

Q: Do you have any goals to make attendance more affordable for students?
P: “Yes. The reality of it is that even though our state legislature was very generous to us last year, that running this enterprise becomes more and more dependent on student tuition. One of the things that I plan to launch this fall is a private fundraising campaign for a $30 million endowment for leadership scholarships to recruit students who want to be engaged and become involved at Southern Miss. When that $30 million is realized, that will be 50 scholarships a year for new freshmen at $3000 a semester, fall and spring, and that will continue for them for four years. So that’s one way that we can bring in students and deter the cost for them while continuing to see the university grow.”

Q: The Supreme Court recently ruled that affirmative action in college decisions is unconstitutional. How does that impact your goal to make the campus more diverse?
P: “I don’t see that it will have an adverse impact. So to be clear, they ruled that you can’t use race in making admissions decisions for students or graduate students. It does not affect the affirmative action federal laws and equal employment opportunity laws with our employees – with our faculty and our staff. We, in our admissions policies, have never made race preferences, and yet we enjoy the most diverse student body in the state of Mississippi. So we’re gonna continue to grow, continue to be diverse, and it shouldn’t have any impact on us because it doesn’t cause for us to change any of our processes.”

Q: Earlier this summer, State Auditor Shad White raised some concerns about university spending on DEI initiatives. What is your take on that?
P: “Well it’s an interesting phenomenon. He did ask for an audit to what we were spending, which we fully complied with. I believe that investing in programs for students, faculty, and staff that increase our diversity, that ensure that all are being treated equitably, and that we really not just create a climate of tolerance, but a climate of celebration, is essential to the life of the university. So we will continue to work in that direction.”

Q: Forbes recently ranked USM as Mississippi’s 6th best employer. What factors do you think contributed to this ranking and what message does this ranking send to USM’s students?
P: “Well, we certainly were glad to learn that yet again we were named as a top place to work for employees in Mississippi. I hope it has to do with our culture. At Southern Miss, we attract people that want to go big places, that hold audacious dreams and pursue those with passion and persistence. I think we also have a community of caring, and so I think folks look out for one another. We’re on a beautiful block of land. And I think one of the things that makes Southern Miss such a great place to work is how great our students are. They come to us, they’re earnest, they’re engaged, they wanna better themselves, and that makes for a great place to work. You can go home at night knowing you’re making an impact that’s gonna last a lifetime.”

Q: You’re known as one of the most active university presidents out there. What keeps you going?
P: “I love what I do! You know, I think the whole reason for higher education is to help students earn a great living, but create an extraordinary life. And so if you take a student – maybe they’re a first-generation college student, and their parents or grandparents didn’t have that opportunity – and then they earn that degree, you change that person’s life, but you change generations going forward, right? There’s a lot of purpose to it, right? And there’s a lot of gratification that comes from knowing that you’re helping individual students, you’re helping families, you’re helping communities, you’re helping the globe. So what keeps me going is I love Southern Miss, I love our students, and I’m just energized by the direction we’re taking.


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