Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

More Than a ?First'

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

More Than a ?First'

Article excerpt

Dr. Rodney Bennett was appointed president of the University of Southern Mississippi, he anticipated a bit more publicity than usual, but he says he "did not expect that we would still be talking about it from February to June." As the first African-American president of a predominantly White university in Mississippi, Bennett has garnered significant national attention.

Not only does Bennetts appointment highlight the states progress in race relations, it also leads to reflection on its dismal past. Southern Miss, like its higher-profile sister Ole Miss (University of Mississippi), took extreme measures to resist desegregation. In the 1950s, Clyde Kennard, the first Black applicant to Southern Miss, was sent to prison on bogus charges of stealing chicken feed to keep him from repeatedly seeking admission.

Recent racial incidents in Mississippi have reminded the nation of the state's history of intolerance. Among them: an angry protest with racial epithets at Ole Miss after the re-election of President Barack Obama last November and, earlier this year, vigorous opposition from the mayor of Madison, Miss., to historically Black Jackson State University establishing a satellite campus in her town.

But Bennett isn't dwelling on racial issues or on being a Black "first." Instead, he told Diverse in a recent interview, "Race is something that we can talk about, and it generates interest, but I don't think that was why I was selected," says Bennett. "I think [the Institutions of Higher Education Board of Trustees] were looking for someone who can do the work and graduate students."

In fact, Board of Trustees President Ed Blakeslee says, in announcing the appointment, that Bennett met those criteria. "Dr. Bennett's experience and his commitment to students demonstrate that he is the right person to lead the university at this time."

Bennett's priorities are decidedly student-focused. Topping his fist is the university's graduation rate. "We're graduating 49 percent of our students after six years, and that's really not acceptable. I think it's a tragedy for nearly half to not finish," he says. "One of the approaches we will take is to really look at how we recruit students, where we go to recruit them and what our message is - what we say to them about the reality of college-level work. …

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