Rodney D. Bennett is the current president of the University of Southern Mississippi. He is the institution’s tenth president and the first African American president of a predominantly white college or university in Mississippi. His presidency was announced February 7, 2013, and he assumed his office on April 1 of that year. However, three days after his appointment, a tornado struck the Hattiesburg, Mississippi campus, and he began to direct the cleanup and rebuilding efforts in the interim. Bennett in his current position is responsible for all facets of campus life and administration. His stated primary focus is improving the school’s overall graduation rate of 49 percent in six years through better advising and counseling to current and potential students about the requirements for success. The university has 16,000 students, with black students comprising 31 percent of the campus enrollment.
Dr. Bennett acknowledged that his selection as president has broken an important racial barrier in a state long known for segregated and unequal higher education. Nonetheless, he did not view his race as an issue in his professional life or see it as factor in his selection. Bennett presides over Mississippi’s most diverse institution of higher learning, a far cry from the 1950s, when its first black applicant, Clyde Kennard, was sent to prison on spurious charges to prevent his admission. Its mascot at the time was “General Nat,” named for Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest who was a Confederate general and founder of the Ku Klux Klan, and university’s sports teams were known as “the Southerners.”
Dr. Bennett has worked in education since 1993. His previous appointment was the Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Georgia, and before that as its Dean of Students and Interim Provost for International Diversity at the institution. He has also served as Dean of Students at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and Associate Dean of Student Life at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN. He has served as Chair of the University of Georgia Alumni Athletic Association, the NCAA Recertification process, and was a member of the on-site committee for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, reviewing compliance areas related to student life and student affairs.
Dr. Bennett received a Doctor of Education in Educational Administration from Tennessee State University, a Master of Education in Educational Administration from Middle Tennessee State University, and a Bachelor’s of Science in mass communication from Middle Tennessee State.
In January 2022, Bennet announced that he plans to step down as president of the University of Southern Mississippi in June 2023.