Dr. Joseph S. Paul eschewed the spotlight during his presidential inauguration Oct. 5 at The University of Southern Mississippi’s (USM) Hattiesburg campus, deflecting the focus instead on the institution where he’s been called to serve as its leader.
A beloved son of the University, Dr. Paul was installed as the 11th president of his alma mater during an investiture ceremony held in historic Bennett Auditorium as the school also celebrated homecoming week.
The 1975 graduate of Southern Miss first served in the post on an interim basis beginning in July 2022 before being named president starting Nov. 1 of last year by the State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL).
“Today’s events may appear to be about me, the person just inaugurated as the 11th president,” Dr. Paul said in his remarks to the hundreds of USM faithful in attendance. “But what today is really about is the celebration of this noble institution, The University of Southern Mississippi; a collection of people and purposes and challenges and opportunities that is both ineffable yet tangible, that passes from one generation to another, that has outlived its founders from 113 years ago and will outlive us gathered here today.
“This ceremony is about what endures in the culture and spirit of this place, and the work we do here is greater than us as individuals and more lasting than our moment in time. It is about constant change and about our steadfast calling to serve our students well.”
A Mississippi Gulf Coast native, Dr. Paul most recently served his alma mater as Vice President for Student Affairs before retiring after a 40-year career at the school, holding various roles in student affairs administration. He earned a Ph.D. in higher education administration from the University of Alabama and is a member of the Southern Miss Alumni Association Alumni Hall of Fame.
He hailed his alma mater for its deeply held values of “caring, community, and grit.”
“Harvard scholar Dr. Angela Duckworth defines grit as ‘the individual capacity to set lofty goals, and then pursue them with purpose, passion and persistence,” he said. “At Southern Miss, since our founding, we have always set audacious goals that others about us may doubt we can accomplish, and then we pursue them with an uncommon passion and a relentless persistence.
“At Southern Miss, we are resilient. We never give up, and we never give in.”
Representatives of the university’s student body, faculty and staff were on hand to formally welcome Dr. Paul as their president, praising his leadership and commitment to academic freedom, student development and achievement, and commitment to fostering an environment of collegiality and cooperation among all USM employees and its stakeholders for the good of the institution.
“Dr. Paul has accomplished a lot this past year and has undoubtedly pushed Southern Miss further in the right direction,” said Student Government Association President Jonathan Jenkins. “Southern Miss has significantly benefited from his leadership, and I am confident we will continue to see Southern Miss soar to new heights during his presidency.”
Dr. Jennifer Courts, president of the USM Faculty Senate, said that in his time as president, Dr. Paul has proven he recognizes the importance of the University’s faculty “in achieving the vision of Southern Miss to be a student-centered public research university with an unparalleled student life experience.”
“In creating a community that values faculty feedback, he has confirmed that he understands that this vision can only be fully realized in collaboration with faculty,” Dr. Courts continued. “Dr. Paul knows that including his constituents in the decision-making process helps move our institution into the future, leading to a more stable and cohesive community and greater innovation. He appreciates that supporting the welfare and integrity of the faculty leads to increased benefits for our students and the University community.
“He is a strong leader who serves not for the prominence the position can offer, but for the good it allows him to accomplish.”
Speaking on behalf of the Staff Council, Mary Alexander pledged the support of the University’s staff for his presidency. “This is the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in the history of the University,” she said. “Let’s take it to the top, Dr. Paul, together!”
Dr. Paul received additional salutations from other dignitaries participating in the ceremony, among them including State Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann; USM alumnus Powell G. Ogletree Jr., a member of the IHL Board of Trustees; J. Troy Johnston, president of the USM Alumni Association; and Joseph Quinlan, president of the USM Foundation. USM President Emeritus Dr. Aubrey K. Lucas and U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), a USM alumna, were also in attendance at the ceremony.
The formal rite of investiture for Dr. Paul was then performed by Dr. Alfred Rankins, Mississippi’s Commissioner of Higher Education; Dr. Alfred McNair Jr., president of the IHL Board of Trustees; and IHL Trustee and USM alumnus Tom Duff.
Dr. Shea Kidd-Brown, vice president of campus life at Wake Forrest University, presented the inauguration address. A native of Hattiesburg, Dr. Kidd-Brown earned her undergraduate degree from USM, where she leaned on Dr. Paul’s mentorship in navigating her way through her academic career at the University and inspired by his example to pursue a career in higher education.
“Dr. Paul, no one is better suited for this appointment, at this time, than you,” she said. “May you continue to leave USM better than you found it.”
Many positive developments have already occurred at the University during Dr. Paul’s presidency, including an increase in new student enrollment, as well as a surge in alumni and Eagle Club memberships and season ticket sales for the University’s athletics programs. A recent anonymous endowment of $6 million made to the school’s capital campaign has pushed it well past its goal of $150 million.
Dr. Paul called on all members of the USM family to join him in a collective effort to maintain the momentum in every aspect of the University, particularly in how it serves the needs of its students, which he referred to as the school’s “Why”.
“Let’s set our sights on being distinctive in the content of our academic programs, course offerings and student life, and provide for our students in all we do a value added they won’t find in other places,” he urged. “Let’s help our students be future-oriented and ready for life.
“Let’s help our students, who often come from ordinary backgrounds and circumstances, go out into the world and do extraordinary things. Let’s help them be ready for life, and ready for their journey To The Top.”
State and local leaders also lauded Dr. Paul for his stellar record of service to the university, Pine Belt region, and Mississippi, including Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker; State Rep. Missy McGee; and Forrest County District 1 Supervisor-Elect Gentry Mordica, all of whom are USM alums.
“Dr. Paul’s inauguration as the 11th president comes at a moment of genuine excitement for Southern Miss and its future,” said Barker, who bestowed congratulations to the president during the ceremony. “It is critical that the entire University community now rally into action behind his vision of setting audacious goals, pursuing them relentlessly, and forging a path toward distinction.”
McGee believes no one is better prepared to lead the University than Dr. Paul.
“This is such an exciting day for Southern Miss with Dr. Paul’s inauguration as the 11th president of our beloved institution,” McGee said. “Joe has been a mentor, advisor, and most of all a friend to me since my days as a student at USM, and I know there are countless others who can say the same.
“It is most definitely a day for celebration at The University of Southern Mississippi.”
Mordica recalled when he was an undergraduate at USM in the 1980s becoming acquainted with Dr. Paul, when the latter was serving as the school’s Dean of Students.
“I can say from experience that USM could not have made a better choice for its president,” Mordica said. “He always goes above and beyond the call of duty, is a great ambassador for the University, and has always had the best interests of the University and community close to his heart.
“Few are more dedicated or bleed black and gold like Dr. Paul. I look forward to working with him to keep USM and Forrest County moving forward for many years to come.”
Dr. Heather Annulis, director of the School of Leadership at USM’s Gulf Park Campus in Long Beach and resident of Pass Christian, said the events of the week recognizing Dr. Paul’s investiture “continues our excitement and momentum at Southern Miss,” further noting, “We stand behind him with our full support as he leads our institution, including Coastal USM, to the top.”
Dr. Erin Lambert Dornan, director of communications and operations for USM Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, has worked with Dr. Paul throughout her career at the University. She’s thrilled to see him take the reins as its leader and says she’s witness to a positive and contagious energy at Southern Miss since he took office.
“I’m really excited for the future of our University with Dr. Paul at the helm, and I know he will continue to leave our University better than he found it,” she said.
Dr. Paul asked those in attendance at the ceremony and all who love and support the University to join him in his journey as president toward the goal of taking USM to the top.
“Today, I accept this position with humility and all the positive energy and sense of urgency I can muster,” he said in conclusion. “It will take all of us, but as I know, together, we are mighty. God bless us all, and God bless Southern Miss.”