GULFPORT — Minutes after University of Southern Mississippi President Emeritus Aubrey Lucas was named the school’s interim president, Gulf Coast leaders said they were convinced that efforts to expand the Gulf Park campus to a four-year college will remain on the front burner.
“Dr. Lucas is a fine man, and we believe he’ll continue with the same interests as Dr. Fleming to help us gain the position we need to have down here,” said Gene Warr of Gulfport, chairman of the education committee for Coast 21, a private organization with several thousand supporters, mostly USM alums. “We’re putting our faith and confidence in him.”
On Aug. 9, Lucas, 67, was selected by the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning to assume responsibilities Sept. 1 as president of the Hattiesburg-based university until a successor is chosen.
Lucas, a 1955 USM grad and native of State Line, served as president of Delta State University from 1971 to 1975, and president of USM from 1975 until his retirement in 1996.
Lucas replaces Dr. Horace Fleming, who resigned July 19 from his post as president, a position he held since 1996.
Nearly 15,000 students were enrolled at USM last fall, making it the state’s second largest university, offering 90 bachelor’s degree programs, 61 master’s degree programs, two specialist’s degree programs and 19 doctoral degree programs. Founded in 1910 as a state-supported teaching college, USM became a comprehensive university in 1962.
Because personnel matters are confidential, Fleming’s resignation, which came days after the College Board offered him a one-year contract extension, had been fodder for speculation that, among other allegations, the College Board was unhappy with Fleming’s support for expanding USM on the Gulf Coast.
“I’ve thought about it a lot because Horace Fleming is my friend and the situation really bothered me,” Lucas said. “Even though there are those who say it did, I don’t know if the Gulf Coast situation had anything to do with his departure.”
“I will tell you this: I intend to work diligently to realize the board’s plans for the Gulf Coast and I think the board knows that. I’ve been pushing that and working with the legislature for 25 years,” he said.
Warr said he’s hopeful there won’t be any implications for expansion plans because of Fleming’s departure.
“We’ve heard continuous comments from people that were interested in replacing Dr. Fleming and from members of the IHL operation that say no emphasis will be taken off the Gulf Coast issue,” he said. “We can ask that, say that and hear that over and over, but we have to start believing it.
“These are fine people, and we have no reason not to believe it. But we’re certainly hopeful and expect them to keep their word and their interest and desire to see this thing happen.”
Dr. Carley Davis of Long Beach, who recently moved his stepdaughter, a junior at Ole Miss, to an apartment in Oxford, said he would have preferred it if she could study closer to home.
“If she wasn’t studying pre-med, she probably would have chosen USM in Hattiesburg because it’s closer, and even the Gulf Coast, if that was an option — but it wasn’t,” Davis said. “I know her mother would have liked for her to live closer and still get a four-year degree.”
Davis said he thought Fleming “got the shaft, primarily because the College Board is more heavily biased toward the northern half of the state.”
“Because of that, Ole Miss and Mississippi State have been looked at more favorably when money was passed out and USM has gotten the short end of the stick for many years,” he said. “I hated to see Fleming go because I thought he was a real pro-USM voice and was penalized for that.”
Mike Tonos, owner of JMT Consulting, a Biloxi-based public relations consulting firm, said the Fleming situation “woke up the Coast business community.”
“The push for the four-year campus has been going on for a while and the business community has mobilized around that effort and has always recognized that it’s going to take some time and work,” he said. “But the way the Fleming situation played out has given the Coast business community a new sense of urgency about just the way the College Board is run and about its interest down here.”
Only one of the College Board’s 12 appointed members is a USM graduate and only three are from South Mississippi.
“Out of sight, out of mind,” said Tonos, 49, former executive editor of The Sun Herald who is pursuing a master’s degree in public relations from USM’s Gulf Park campus. “People on the coast are frustrated about the apparent lack of recognition that this area is an urban area that needs a four-year campus for quality of life issues, as well as the economic steadiness and resources that a campus can bring to a community.”
USM’s expansion on the Gulf Coast occurred in 1972, soon after the school took over Gulf Park College, formerly a private college for women.
“After Hurricane Camille in 1969, there were such setbacks in enrollment and finances until it could no longer continue to operate, so we took it over,” Lucas said. “Through the years, we improved the course offerings so that students could finish their degrees without having to travel to Hattiesburg, Jackson, Starkville or Oxford to get a degree.”
Lucas said there were struggles with the Gulf Coast expansion from the start.
“When we were permitted to set up degree-granting centers throughout Mississippi, there were all kinds of regulations, such as not offering classes during the day, to keep them from competing with established universities,” he said. “We still cannot offer lower division coursework, which is in litigation right now. But we worked with the Gulf Coast legislative delegation to remove the requirement that all courses be offered at night.
“We’ve improved the facilities there with the assistance of the board of trustees and the Gulf Coast delegation. We’ve added new programs. We brought an accredited MBA program to Gulf Park when it only available in Hattiesburg, Starkville, Oxford and Jackson.”
When Lucas was hired as president in 1975, a lawsuit was in progress to keep USM from expanding on the Gulf Coast. A case is currently pending before the Supreme Court that will determine whether or not USM can move forward with lower division work in a limited way within the university’s legal authority.
“We’re not anywhere near where we ought to be there,” Lucas said. “The Gulf Coast is a fast growing, important region of Mississippi. If the case is decided in our favor, then we’ll move on to develop some lower division work, provided we have funding.”
When Lucas was a graduate student at Florida State in the 1960s, the state of Florida developed a group of upper division universities at Boca Raton, Jacksonville and Pensacola.
“For several years, they offered junior, senior and graduate work only,” he said. “But a need developed to have the full component of four years of higher education within the one institution, so the state of Florida gave them the authority to add freshman and sophomore work, even though there were very fine community colleges nearby, as we have on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“After these three universities added lower division work, nearby community colleges continued to prosper and four-year universities have done well. If we look at Florida as an example, I think we’ll see how it could work to everyone’s benefit.”
When Warr was asked if he thoug
ississippians might expect a surge of political activity from the business community on the Gulf Coast in the wake of Fleming’s departure, he said no.
“I don’t think there will be a great outbreak of spotlight gathering or trying to wield any kind of extreme pressure,” he said. “We will keep up the same interest at the same level and increase it if we have