HATTIESBURG — Many in the Coast business community made no secret of its opposition to the perceived ouster of Dr. Horace Fleming as president of the University of Southern Mississippi.
Fleming resigned after being offered only a one-year contract renewal from the state College Board, and many Coast business leaders suspected Fleming’s difficulties with the board stemmed from his support for the expansion of USM on the Coast.
The search for a new president of USM is being watched carefully.
“The business community is supportive on the search,” said Gene Warr, educational chairman for the Coast 21 business alliance. “We are anxious to see who is chosen. What I understand is that it will be a couple or three months before they start interviewing. Everyone is generally hopeful that within three or four months they will be selecting someone. And we’re confident they will make a good decision.”
Warr said Coast leaders are comfortable now that the search committee is looking for someone who understands the dual campus plan, and will be supportive of the Gulf Coast campus. That expansion also hinges on a ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court in the case regarding the expansion being blocked by the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges.
“We are waiting on the Supreme Court’s decision, but we feel really positive that will be favorable,” Warr said. “We’re hopeful that decision will be out within the next month or two.”
Tulane coming to Coast
Recently Tulane University in New Orleans announced plans to open a branch on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Tulane has forecast that they will attract about 1,000 students. Warr said that number is a little surprising, but not an unreasonable forecast. Coast 21 is supportive of Tulane’s expansion.
“We have said all along it is ripe pickings here, and you can’t have too much access for education,” Warr said. “So we support Tulane’s effort and believe it will complement USM’s effort.”
USM spokesman Phil Hearn said the president search advisory committee is currently gathering applications and nominations, and will hold two meetings in January to narrow the field. Members of the College Board’s search committee will be doing the same thing. The field is expected to be narrowed to eight to 12 candidates early in the year, and down to three or four candidates later in the spring. Those candidates will be invited to the campus to meet with various constituency groups.
Plans are for the new president to be on the job by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. That gives the president time to get acclimated before classes begin in the fall.
While Dr. Fleming is gone from Hattiesburg, and now lives in the Washington, D.C., area, he is not forgotten. A popular bumper sticker on campus advocates Fleming for governor. Students have been selling the bumper stickers for a while now with proceeds going to a scholarship fund.
“As for the bumper stickers, I saw them at my farewell reception, and we had some fun with them that afternoon,” Fleming said. “They are an interesting item. If the students want to raise some money for scholarships or other purposes by selling them as some kind of collector’s item, then I am all for it. We can use the money for scholarships.”
Career in politics?
Fleming said he has never seriously considered a career in politics, but is flattered by the notion.
“I am too outspoken to be in elective politics,” Fleming said. “There will be some very well-qualified candidates for governor, and I intend to be active in supporting one of them.”
Fleming has continued to do some work for USM primarily on a capital fundraising campaign that he started while president. He has been following up with prospective donors from his days as president to build some additional bases of financial support for the university.
USM’s capital campaign has raised almost $70 million of the $100 million campaign goal, and Fleming is optimistic that the campaign goal will be reached shortly — even before the formal conclusion of the campaign in another three years or so.
Dr. Aubrey Lucas, who was the long-time president of USM prior to retirement, is interim president of USM while the search for a new president is conducted. Fleming said he speaks to Lucas fairly regularly. “I do not play any part in his decisions, except to provide such background information as he may need on occasion,” Fleming said.
Fleming’s work in Washington includes lobbying for Mercer University, which is located in Georgia. The Mercer Engineering Research Center does quite a bit of work with the Department of Defense in air logistics and electronic warfare. Mercer’s School of Medicine, School of Pharmacy, School of Engineering, School of Nursing and public health programs also are supported significantly by federal agencies, and Fleming is working in some of those areas as well.
Federal support of research is vital in Mississippi, as well.
“Sponsorship of university research by government agencies — like private support for scholarships and other programs, as in our capital campaign agenda — is very important,” Fleming said. “It also has significant benefits to the economic development of our state and communities. In the case of USM, research sponsorship went from around $20 million in 1997 to over $50 million as of June 30 of this year. Considering that, in the typical case about 75% or more of those dollars generated by research sponsorship from federal and other government agencies is spent in the local area of the university, you can see that additional, important benefit to USM.”
Highest research designation
“The Commission on the Future of the University that I appointed just after becoming USM president in 1997 set as one of our primary goals achievement of the Carnegie Foundation’s highest designation as a doctoral research extensive university. In the year 2000, we achieved that standing, placing us in the top 150 comprehensive universities in the United States. I am very proud of that and grateful to our students and to all my colleagues who worked so hard to make that happen. That will continue to mean a lot to USM and to the state of Mississippi in the years to come.”
Fleming said he didn’t have a difficult transition moving from Hattiesburg to the Capitol because he lived there previously. He served on U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond’s staff as chief economist for the Senate Judiciary Committee, and later as staff director for the office of the president pro-tem from l980-82.
“So I am familiar with Washington and have kept in touch here over the years,” Fleming said. “The adjustment has therefore not been very difficult, for these reasons.
“Of course, we miss our friends there and the lifestyle of Hattiesburg. I have nothing but fond memories of my tenure as president of Southern Miss, and I believe that the university will attract a good leader as the next president. I highly recommend USM to anyone who seeks an outstanding opportunity for leadership in higher education.”
Fleming added that while he is pleased to be of service to USM in fundraising and to Mercer in generating federal government research and program sponsorship, he doesn’t plan to continue that precise focus. “It is certainly interesting and enjoyable work, but, within the next three months, I will decide what I will do professionally longer-term,” Fleming said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.