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Academic, business expertise needed in next USM Lott Center chief

The University of Southern Mississippi wants the new director of the Trent Lott National Center for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship to have both an academic and business development background.

USM is about two weeks into its search for a replacement for Rick Duke, who left his director post in July two years after arriving from Atlanta, where he published a lifestyles magazine and served in a several capacities at Georgia Tech, including economic development. After leaving the two-year-old Lott Center, Duke declined a request to talk about either his tenure or the direction in which the Lott Center is headed.

Duke has since taken on consulting work in the region, most recently helping McComb develop a plan to capitalize on its community and economic development assets.

The dual background sought for Duke’s replacement would provide leadership for the university’s master’s degree program in economic development while enhancing cooperative efforts statewide for business creation, expansion and retention, USM says.

Chad Driskell, executive assistant to the president for external affairs, is heading the search. “Ideally we would like someone with the academic credentials that could hold a faculty rank,” Driskell said in a recent interview.

Driskell acknowledged the Lott Center had not expected Duke’s departure so soon after his arrival. “Rick felt it was time for him to seek other opportunities,” Driskell said.

The Lott Center grew out of former president Shelby Thames’ desire for the university to link its expertise in economic development and scientific research with job creation efforts in South Mississippi and elsewhere in the state. Thames, a polymer scientist who served as president from 2002 to 2007, also led efforts toward creation of the off-campus Polymer Science Research Center. Thames recently retired as a research faculty member, ending 46 years with the university.

Driskell said in the Lott Center has worked closely with the university’s academic units to provide “human capital” for economic development projects across Mississippi. The Center is a front door of sorts for businesses that need help from professionals within the university, he said.

“We make sure they get what they need and follow-up to make sure everything gets connected.”

The center is also home to the state’s lone graduate program in economic development. “That’s a reason we’re looking for a director with educational credentials who can teach” but also has “real world training” to bring to the job.

Many of the Lott Center students are professionals in economic development who have returned to the classroom to receive a master’s degree. Some take part an executive format curriculum that involves online instruction and Saturday classes, according to Driskell.

The students seek to expand “their tool kit” by obtaining both the credentials and experience to flourish in the highly competitive field, he said.

Driskell said an on-campus search committee will participate in the selection of Duke’s replacement. He said the hiring decision will probably be “a collaborative effort between myself and the university president.”

Duke is the third high-profile USM official to resign in the last few months.

President Martha Saunders resigned at the end of April and Lance Nail departed his post this month as dean of the Business College for a similar post at Texas Tech.


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