For the third time this decade, Mississippi State University (MSU) is searching for a new president.
Malcolm Portera left MSU to take over the University of Alabama’s system. Then his replacement Charles Lee retired. His successor, Doc Foglesong, has announced his plans to retire, as well.
So, the stability the university enjoyed with Donald Zacharias’ long tenure has been replaced by a pattern that has repeated itself every three years or so since the turn of the century.
Vance Watson, vice president for forestry, agriculture and veterinary medicine, has been named interim chief while the search unfolds. Watson, who has spent his entire professional career at Mississippi State, has indicated that he will apply for the job permanently.
As the economic development engine for the Golden Triangle, Mississippi State is often used as a selling point by area chambers in their efforts to attract business and industry. And with the tenant in the president’s mansion changing so often, area economic developers are hoping the next hire will be someone who plans to stay a while.
“It does create a shake-up with the change,” said David Thornell, president and CEO of the Greater Starkville Development Partnership.
There is an open seat on the Partnership’s board reserved for the university’s president. Thornell said since he’s been with the Partnership, that every president has accepted the position and taken an active role in growing Starkville and the surrounding area economically.
“We would like to be involved in the (search) process,” Thornell said. “The new president should be cooperative in our efforts to grow the community because we share the same goals.”
Thornell’s Partnership has implemented a program designed to entice MSU alumni to return to Starkville, either to retire or to live and work. A president with a mind for economic development could greatly enhance that program, Thornell said.
“The university is our No. 1 asset,” Thornell said.
Hitting that homerun
Columbus-Lowndes Development Link CEO Joe Higgins uses a sports analogy to describe MSU’s economic development role in his area.
“I look for them to be part of a team — a catcher, a first baseman, an outfielder,” Higgins said. “As long as they do that, they can help me hit a homerun.
“I’ve taken prospects over there before, and it has gone well and we closed the deal. I’ve taken prospects there before and it hasn’t gone well, and I’m convinced we lost the deal because of it.”
Higgins shares Thornell’s belief that the revolving door in the president’s office does nothing to help his efforts.
“We need some tenure there,” Higgins said. “We don’t need somebody to come in just to pad their résumé and move on. Your major land-grant institution should not settle for a compromise candidate.”
The Columbus-Lowndes County area is making a push to become a player for the automotive industry and aerospace industry. Columbus has already nabbed Aurora Flight Sciences, which manufacturers state-of-the-art unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and UAV components for the research, defense and homeland security markets. Mississippi State’s Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems and its aerospace engineering program are strong.
“I need a president who’s going to keep them that way,” Higgins said. “I want us to be able to knock a prospect’s socks off when we take them over there.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .