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Q&A: Dr. Martha Saunders, president of the University of Southern Mississippi

Martha Saunders

Black and gold heritage

Learning more about the leader of the Eagles

Dr. Martha Saunders’ philosophy on education follows three simple principles: know your students, connect them to bigger things and set a good example. Her career has taken her to such universities as Columbus State Georgia University, University of West Florida and the University of Wisconson-Whitewater. Eventually, her path brought her back to her hometown of Hattiesburg as the president of the University of Southern Mississippi.

Saunders has her hands in everything, both on and off campus, from events such as Founder’s Day, to awarding scholarships at  local high schools. And, in order to keep her students in touch, she records her activities in a blog.

The Mississippi Business Journal caught up with Saunders and asked her about her career as well as the university’s past, current and future developments.

Q —  Do you feel like you have rebuilt the trust level at University of Southern Mississippi (USM)’s campus since the departure of Dr. Shelby Thames?

A —  I hope so.  I have tried hard to keep open the lines of communication and make sure administrative decision making is transparent to the campus.  I think people believe they can come to me if they have concerns and feel confident they will be heard.

Q —  Do you feel an extra responsibility to the university because you are a Hattiesburg native?

A —  Nothing I have ever done is as important to me as the work I am doing now.  I grew up in the shadow of this university and benefitted from its presence as a child.  I owe the community and Southern Miss for the many gifts I received growing up, and I intend to repay them.

Q —  What are your top three goals for USM in the next 10 years?

A —  I can give you four:

– An enhanced climate for academic success.  Every student should come to Southern Miss believing he or she will graduate and be better for the time spent.  We are working on reducing barriers to success and continuously improving the quality of education we provide.

– Increased visibility.  We want the world to know what an amazing university we have.

– Increased connections with the community.  We are building on our strong record in economic development to better serve the state and region.

– A strong culture of healthy minds and bodies.  We plan to model the tenets of sustainability.

Q —  What is your opinion on the funding formula set forth by the IHL board in 2008?  Do you believe it is an upgrade from the previous formula?

A —  Actually, the funding formula isn’t new.  The board adopted it several years ago.  It is, however, newly implemented, and that has caused some anxiety.   It makes sense to me for the IHL board to have a method of distributing funds that is transparent.  I appreciate consistency.

Q —  While there has been no serious emergencies, yet, are you pleased with the new initiative for emergency response at USM?

A —  Yes.  I have confidence in our emergency response plan and our emergency team.  We routinely do tabletop exercises and emergency drills to stay on our game.  We’re ready.

Q —  Do you feel like there is an acceptable level of diversity amongst professors at USM?

A —  In some areas, yes.  We have a strong and growing representation of women in all areas of campus.  Our record with ethnic minority representation on the faculty is not as good, but I expect to see improvement soon.  We are implementing strategies for strengthening the balance.

Q —  What is something about USM that most people don’t know?

A —  People may not know the incredible scope of our research programs. When Hurricane Katrina decimated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, not much survived the turbulent waters of the Gulf except for a single ocean buoy, Station USM-3M01, operated by our Department of Marine Science.  It was the only ocean buoy that withstood the storm and continued to record critical storm data that will be used to help improve forecasting models.  All that we now know about ocean conditions in that disastrous storm we owe to that one single buoy that held fast and did its job.

From creating new aquaculture technology to meet America’s demand for seafood at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory to developing physical protection systems for sporting venues through the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security, Southern Miss research efforts are impacting society.

Age: 60
Hometown: Hattiesburg
Education: B.A. in French, University of Southern Mississippi; M.A. in journalism, University of Georgia; Ph.D. in communication theory and research, Florida State University
Hobbies/Interests: Gardening, sailing, saltwater fishing, needlework
Food: Fresh Gulf Shrimp
Movie: “Cool Runnings”
Color: Black and gold
Music: All genres


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