Martha Saunders steps down as president of USM

Published: Apr. 27, 2012 at 2:20 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 27, 2012 at 9:22 PM CDT
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HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The ninth president of The University of Southern Mississippi announced Friday she would be stepping down.

"It's been an honor," said Martha Saunders, president since 2007, at a morning press conference in the Administration Building of the Hattiesburg campus. "I'm leaving Southern Miss better than I found it."

She added, "I am looking forward to being part of its future as a part of the faculty."

Saunders fielded several questions at the press conference concerning athletics; she deflected those and responded three times that, "It's not all about athletics." When asked about her reasons, Saunders and officials from the IHL said her motivation would remain private for now.

"This was my decision," said Saunders.

The Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning announced it accepted the resignation of Saunders on Friday, effective June 30, 2012. The Board stated they would begin the search process as soon as possible and would discuss the timeline for the search at its May meeting.

"The Board appreciates the years of service and dedication to the university that Dr. Saunders has demonstrated," said Board President Ed Blakeslee in a prepared statement. "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."

Citing personal reasons, Saunders has elected to return to the classroom and will become part of the faculty on the Gulf Coast Campus of the University of Southern Mississippi. In addition, she will assist with the transition process, according to a prepared statement from the IHL.

"I have enjoyed working with Dr. Saunders to help move the University of Southern Mississippi forward," said Dr. Hank M. Bounds, Commissioner of Higher Education in a press release. "She has fostered a climate of academic success while enhancing the national image of the university and expanding its national research presence."

Saunders announcement was a major disappointment for Senate Faculty President Tim Rehner, he said since she has taken over faculty confidence, recruitment and the way the University does business has drastically changed for the better.

"A lot has been accomplished so to have a resignation when things are going so well is really distressing," said Rehner. " I know there is a back story to everything, but I am extremely disappointed. I am angry that she is in a position where she's resigning."

Newly appointed Provost Denis Wiesnburg credits Dr. Saunders for his return to the University in 2010.

"I am disappointed to see her moving on and I certainly wish her well but I know it is going to be an adjustment for all of us," said Wiesenburg.

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.

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