When Dr. Mark Keenum was named the 19th president of Mississippi State University, he pledged to become a strong voice for the state’s land-grant university, telling the school’s story wherever possible to whoever would listen.
Six months into his tenure, he is fulfilling the pledge and with the smile you might expect from a man who was born in Starkville, collected his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the school and has dreamed of the leadership role he now holds.
Besides, the story is a good one, listeners are attentive and the future is bright.
State’s focus, in the simplest of terms, is to provide a quality education for students, enhance its role as a premier southeastern research institution and expand its outreach of service to impact business and industry, agriculture, communities, schools and other education institutions and young people.
Keenum admits funding woes, even with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) monies, offer significant challenges. Rising costs, a moratorium on tuition increases (even though all Mississippi colleges sought, without success, increases from the Institutions for Higher Learning [IHL] board) and uncertain state funding all contribute to the anticipated obstacles that only heighten the need for commitment, creativity and efficiency.
“Our job,” he says to all who hear him, “is to educate our young people from pre-kindergarten up, to help young brains develop, to understand learning starts at birth and to recognize our young people are our future.”
That Mississippi trends tend to rate the state at the top of lists where it would prefer to be low and low on lists it would like to be high only adds to the need for success.
“Education,” the onetime Northeast Mississippi Community College center on the football team continued, “is the engine that drives our state. And keeping kids in school is important. Not only are earnings enhanced, but educated people are happier, healthier and more productive people.”
He said the top 10 jobs in demand for next year’s graduates didn’t even exist in 2004.
Increasing enrollment from the current 18,000-student level to 22,000 by 2015 is an achievable MSU goal, Keenum said, explaining higher numbers impact both a flexible curriculum and additional revenues, enabling the school to grow and expand rather than cut and reduce.
He is quick to applaud the quality of State students, pointing to a rising graduation rate, an increasing retention ratio and a rising ACT average for entering freshmen. That more than 75 percent of students who attend the main campus or one of several strategically located research and extension centers across the state are from Mississippi is also significant.
Education, he adds, is more than classroom study, offering an example…
Relatively new to the non-traditional role is the addition of an official presidential library that contains letters, manuscripts, memos, documents, photographs and military records of Ulysses S. Grant, the country’s 18th president and, of course, a Union general of some success in the Civil War.
Not surprisingly, the library’s relocation to Starkville from a seemingly more appropriate site at Southern Illinois University has drawn attention from the curious, prompting Keenum, with a chuckle and a grin, to validate the honor by saying, “no state probably contributed more to his success than Mississippi.”
Efforts to secure another distinguished banner – a chapter of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honorary — are aggressively underway and would seem a natural addition to nationally recognized programs in research, engineering and agriculture, though liberal arts in general and biological sciences in particular are the fastest growing areas of study.
Boasting a rise in “Bulldog doctors” and “Bulldog attorneys” as examples, he repeated the mission of convincing students “they can be anything they want to be” and adding “it’s our job to help them accomplish their goals,” he suggested an exciting era in higher education looms with new, energetic and visionary leadership (Dr. Hank Bounds at IHL, Dr. Dan Jones at Ole Miss, Dr. Martha Saunders at USM) and pledged his cooperation to the statewide teaching effort.
He again used humor to emphasize the serious point.
An “honorary Rebel” by virtue of his work at Ole Miss while chief of staff for Sen. Thad Cochran, Keenum returned the favor recently, designating Dr. Robert Khayat an “honorary Bulldog” and presenting him a cowbell and a framed State football jersey with his name and college number 76 on it at one of the “10-12 retirement parties” given the departing Ole Miss leader.
“Now I may always wonder where he might hang it,” the State president laughed, “but it was presented in the spirit of cooperation that we can work together.”
It’s a good, positive message, delivered with enthusiasm by a key player. And it’s a sign the state colleges and universities seem ready to assume an even more critical role in the development of Mississippi.
Contact MBJ editor and publisher Ed Darling at email@example.com or by calling (601) 364-1021.