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State superintendent tapped as commissioner of higher ed

Hank Bounds’ career curve has been pretty steep.

He started his career in education as a teacher at Petal High School. Before he turned 40, he was the Mississippi state superintendent of education, named to that post in August 2005.

Last week, Bounds, 41, took another major step when the College Board appointed him commissioner of higher education.

Mississippi Economic Council president Blake Wilson, who worked closely with Bounds on several initiatives that tied education into the business community, thinks Bounds lapped the field of candidates for the Institutions of Higher Learning post.

“It takes outside-the-box thinking,” Wilson said. “You’ve got a proven racehorse in the stable who has performed well in one race. Why not give him the opportunity to run in the next leg? He’s already won the Kentucky Derby; why not let him run the Preakness?”

It was Bounds’ performance as the superintendent of education – the Kentucky Derby – that earned him the shot at leading higher education in Mississippi.

As superintendent, he instituted On the Bus, aimed at cutting the state’s dropout rate in half, with substantial financial backing and grassroots support from the business community. He was instrumental in persuading the Legislature to pass several key bills whose purpose was to improve student performance and ensure accountability.

“He’s in high demand nationally, and career-wise somebody at that age level needs to continue to move forward,” Wilson said. “He could have moved on and gone out of state, but it’s much better to keep a talent like that in state. He has demonstrated an ability to work collegially with others, while still focusing on setting goals and achieving results.”

While Bounds established productive partnerships with Mississippi business community, his new job requires a management style different than that of a CEOs, Wilson said.

“You don’t do it with a top-down style. You do it with a collegial style. Every college president in this state is also a racehorse. It’s a question really of getting everybody running in the same direction, rather than ordering people around. He’s got a perfect style to do that.”

Bounds’ prior success in pushing legislation through the Capitol should serve him well in his new position. Education funding is a hot topic every session, with the full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), the formula used to determine how much state money school districts get, the center of attention. Under Bounds, MAEP was fully funded every session. That includes the 2009 regular session, whose budget for fiscal year 2010 still isn’t set, but key negotiators have agreed on full funding for education.

“He’s so well connected with the business community and the education community, plus he’s respected and trusted within the Legislature,” Wilson said. “We have been trying to push this connect of looking at a P-16 system, in other words preschool through university when we look at education instead of breaking things apart. If you can migrate somebody’s experience from K-12 over to IHL, that’s going to provide a great cross-fertilization effort. This is a way to bring everybody together and line up a plan to get something done. I think it’s a great opportunity.”

Gray Swoope, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, has repeatedly hailed Mississippi’s colleges and universities as critically important in landing large economic development projects.

“We look forward to working with Dr. Bounds,” read a statement from Swoope, who was in Paris last week on an economic development trip. “Today, more than ever, our universities have an important role in economic development. Our state universities played major roles in the recruitment of companies such as GE Aviation, Toyota and PACCAR, to name just a few, and our universities will continue to be vital to the state’s economic development efforts.”

Bounds is only the second commissioner of higher education in Mississippi history. The position was created several years ago as the college board sought to revamp the old system of an executive secretary implementing the Board’s policies. The Board hired a consultant to study the format and make a recommendation. That consultant, Tom Meredith, eventually became the first commissioner. Meredith resigned last year amid a scandal involving Mississippi State University personnel landscaping his Jackson-area home. The probe also claimed then-interim Mississippi State University president Vance Watson.

“We don’t really know (how much power the commissioner has) because it’s such a new position,” said Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at MSU. “Meredith was so focused on his own power that I don’t know that the power of the commissioner ever has developed as it should because you had someone who being the center of authority was such a big thing. In a sense, we are still feeling our way into exactly the role the commissioner should play for the board or as a buffer between various stakeholders of the board.

“I don’t know that that’s been settled yet. Meredith came in and literally sucked all the air out of the room. It was a position created by Tom Meredith as a consultant and then manned by Tom Meredith as an appointee. I would say that not even the board understands totally the role they intended for the commissioner yet, but I think Hank Bounds is a good one to have in there. I would anticipate him being a very effective commissioner.”

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