Associated Press

University of Southern Mississippi President Rodney Bennett has announced he is stepping down at the end of his contract, which expires in 2023.

Bennett, the school’s first African American president and the first African American president of any predominately white university in the state, announced the decision Friday.

“My intention is to begin exploring other professional opportunities later this spring, and I wanted to be transparent with each of you about my plans for the future,” Bennett wrote in a letter to USM faculty, staff and students.

“I am deeply grateful for my strong tenure here,” he said. “I have learned a great deal –- I have grown a great deal -– and I have worked with and mentored outstanding individuals, who I am confident will continue to have a positive impact on higher education. The University of Southern Mississippi will always hold a special place in my heart, and I will always be excited to hear about the good things I know are still on the horizon for this institution.”

Bennett, 55, joined the university in 2013 just after an EF-4 tornado caused significant damage to the university. He rolled up his sleeves to help with the cleanup effort, before he was formally named to the post. His dedication to the university stood out again in 2017, when he rejected a $72,630 salary increase, instead donating the money to the USM Foundation to fund an endowed scholarship.

During his nearly 10 years at USM, Bennett said the school has maintained its regional accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, as well as program-specific accreditations. It also has invested in student life, achieved milestones in private fundraising, and has completed a “wide range of construction projects to maximize the role facilities play in student growth and development, faculty pedagogy and research.”

“I am excited for what lies ahead for me and for my family, but this transition will certainly be bittersweet, as we all love our home here in Hattiesburg — as well as our Greater Pine Belt and Mississippi Gulf Coast communities.”

Bennett said he will work closely with the Institute of Higher Learning system’s commissioner of higher education to develop a transition plan.

“Until my time here has come to a conclusion, we will continue our work at a high level to advance the university and to advance public higher education in Mississippi,” he said. “We will remain committed to being good stewards of the resources that enable us to carry out this important work for our students, for our state and for generations of Golden Eagles yet to come.”