Dr. Martha Saunders, president of The University of Southern Mississippi, announced today she is stepping down from that position effective June 30, 2012. She will return to the classroom as a member of the faculty at Southern Miss Gulf Coast this fall.
“After five of the most professionally enriching years of my career, I have decided to step down as president of The University of Southern Mississippi for personal reasons,” Saunders said. “It has been an honor to serve with you as we, together, have moved our beloved university forward to record enrollments, increased private giving and exciting new building projects. I believe I am leaving Southern Miss better than I found it and look forward to being a part of its future as a member of the faculty.”
Building on a distinguished academic career that established her as an expert in communication studies and a respected leader of colleges and universities, the Southern Miss alumna became president in May 2007. With guidance from University constituents, she quickly determined four areas of strategic focus for her alma mater—establishing a climate for academic success, enhancing connections with the community, creating a culture of healthy minds, bodies and campuses, and enhancing and expanding the University’s national profile.
Today, a fourth-straight record freshman class has boosted enrollment to a historic level, the USM Foundation is poised to shatter its previous record for annual gifts and commitments in fiscal year 2012, and the University’s Gulf Coast operations are successfully recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
Saunders made her announcement at a press conference Friday morning at the Aubrey K. Lucas Administration Building on the University’s Hattiesburg campus. Joining her were members of the University’s Executive Cabinet, as well as Ed Blakeslee, president of the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL Board), and Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Hank Bounds.
“The Board appreciates the years of service and dedication to the University that Dr. Saunders has demonstrated,” Blakeslee said. “The University has grown under her leadership, marking important milestones, such as the Centennial Celebration, and setting the stage for the future through an inclusive strategic planning process.”
Bounds also applauded Saunders’ work over the previous five years.
“I have enjoyed working with Dr. Saunders to help move The University of Southern Mississippi forward,” said Bounds. “She has fostered a climate of academic success while enhancing the national image of the University and expanding its national research presence.”
Saunders’ accomplishments both individually and collectively as the University’s leader are many. She guided the University’s Centennial Celebration in 2010, which resulted in a Silver Anvil Award from the Public Relations Society of America. The honor, the highest given for public relations practices, was a first for the University and the second for Saunders, who added a Stevie Award for Women in Business in 2011. Also in 2010, she was the first university president to appoint an oil spill response team, and Southern Miss researchers continue to lead efforts studying the effects of the spill two years later.
Under her leadership, the University was ranked among the nation’s top 20 Most Popular Universities by U.S. News & World Report in 2011, and is recognized as one of only two Green Colleges in the state by the Princeton Review. In addition, over the course of her presidency more than $250 million in facility improvements have been realized or have entered the planning stages.
The president also positioned the University to better address the needs of the state, region and country. While programs in polymer science, marine science, education and others continue to attract the best and brightest minds to Southern Miss, the University’s College of Business has been ranked among the nation’s top 15 percent of business schools for two consecutive years by U.S. News & World Report, and is poised for greater success with the planned construction of Scianna Hall, a $33-million proposed facility on the Hattiesburg campus. With Saunders’ backing, the profile of the University’s School of Nursing also received a boost this month, when plans to elevate its status to a degree-granting college were approved by the IHL Board.
“President Saunders is known for her honesty and integrity; she cares deeply for our students and values the faculty process of shared governance,” said Denis Wiesenburg, who has served as the University’s vice president for research since 2010 and will add the duties of provost in July. “Under her leadership, she stabilized our finances, increased student enrollment and rallied the faculty to create a better university. It is indeed a sad day for the Southern Miss community.”
Saunders came to The University of Southern Mississippi from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, which she served as its first-ever female chancellor. Prior to her appointment at Wisconsin-Whitewater, she was vice president for academic affairs at Columbus State University in Columbus, Ga.
She previously held the position of dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of West Florida (UWF), where she earned the rank of tenured professor of communication. At UWF, she also worked as director of the University Honors Program.
A native of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Saunders earned her B.A. in French from Southern Miss; her M.A. in journalism from the University of Georgia in Athens; and her Ph.D. in communication theory and research from Florida State University in Tallahassee.
The IHL Board of Trustees will begin the search process as soon as possible. The Board will discuss the timeline for the search at its May meeting.