By GWEN SISSON
At every freshman orientation, Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum addresses future students with two pieces of advice, “go to class” and “pay attention.”
“The first thing I tell them is to go to class,” Keenum said. “It is the most important thing they can do as MSU students. And then I tell them to pay attention in class. Take notes. Get to know their professor. They will be successful nine times out of 10 if they do those simple things.”
Keenum also encourages MSU students to be as involved in as many student organizations as they are interested.
“With over 300 student organizations, there are a lot of opportunities for involvement,” Keenum said. “Getting involved is a great way to make life-long friends and develop good leadership skills.”
Keenum said it is important to MSU that every student is successful.
“As a society, it is important for each student to get a good education and become a productive member of the community, and hopefully they will be part of communities in Mississippi,” Keenum said. “High quality college graduates are vital to the future of our state and our country.”
Keenum is excited about the new school year. With growing enrollment and a variety of expanding services, Keenum said it is an exciting time for the MSU family.”
Final enrollment numbers are expected to be in at the end of August or early September, but estimated numbers bring totals between 20,000-21,000 students. Last fall, enrollment stood at 19,644.
When Keenum became MSU President, his goal was to see 22,000 at MSU by 2015, based on current growth trends.
“Our university is growing and we are well on our way to reaching our goal,” Keenum said.
And he is making plans for expansion and growth. Currently, the university is building new residence halls, with an additional residence hall in the planning phase. They are expanding dining facilities, with new service lines and seating. Plans are in the works for additional classroom space, as well as additional parking. Keenum said the university is working with the Mississippi Department of Transportation to create a new entrance road south of campus.
The university also has 60-65 new faculty members on staff this year.
“We have a lot of high expectations as we work hard to meet the needs of our students,” Keenum said.
Hank Bounds, commissioner of Mississippi’s Institutes of Higher Learning, said Keenum is the right guy at the right time for MSU.
“I truly believe that Mark’s leadership has transformed the university, energized alums and has obviously created excitement about Mississippi State throughout the state and the nation,” Bounds said. “Mark is headed in the right direction and the MSU family has embraced him.”
The optimism Keenum has created at MSU has gotten a lot of attention.
“Since his arrival two and a half years ago, Dr. Keenum has established a cooperative spirit among the faculty and staff that has created a renewed sense of optimism around the campus,” said Jerry Gilbert, MSU Provost and Executive Vice President. “He has articulated a vision for advancing the university and begun to engage the faculty and administration in setting strategic goals for the future of the university. Under his leadership, there is a clear expectation on campus that Mississippi State will continue to grow in prestige and national reputation.”
Amy Tuck, special assistant to the President of MSU, said Dr. Keenum is a strong advocate for faculty, staff and students.
“He has kept a tireless schedule of visits to high schools, community colleges, and civic groups to tell the Mississippi State story and to talk about the value of higher education to our state,” Tuck said. “It is a time of exciting growth and opportunity under his leadership.”
Meghan Millea, president of the MSU Faculty Senate, said Keenum has demonstrated a commitment to issues of concern to faculty.
“He prioritized compensation for faculty and staff and we (see the) evidence of his commitment in the form of raises this fiscal year,” Millea said. “His commitment to growing faculty numbers to accommodate our growing student enrollment is evident in the number of new faculty as well as position openings for next year. He continues to respond to the needs of students and faculty by working toward a new classroom building while honoring the traditions of our campus by renovating historic buildings.”
Students are also taking note of the optimism on the MSU campus.
“It’s great to have leaders on our campus like Dr. Keenum who have a vested interest in continuing to move this University forward,” said Rhett Hobart, president of the MSU Student Association. “Dr. Keenum does everything in his ability to seek out the thoughts and concerns of others to ensure that every voice across campus is being heard. There has never been a better time to be a Bulldog than now, and that is thanks in large part to the dedication and profound leadership provided by our alumnus, and University President, Dr. Mark Keenum.”
And while he loves the job and the opportunities the position has opened, Keenum never dreamed he would become president of Mississippi State University.
“When I took a leave of absence from my faculty position to go to Washington D.C. to serve with Senator Thad Cochran, Dr. Zacharias told me there would be a job waiting for me,” Keenum said. “I don’t think either of us had this job in mind at the time.”
Keenum has always been a Bulldog. He was born when his father was in his junior year at MSU and lived on campus the first two years of his life.
“I always knew in my heart and my mind that I would be a student at Mississippi State University,” Keenum said. “I received a great education and had a great student experience on this campus. The mentoring I received during that time was invaluable. It really got me started on the right path.”
As he was finding his way, Keenum “stumbled” into Agricultural Economics. What he discovered in his undergraduate studies is what he truly had an interest in — business and finance. Keenum said he entered graduate school to make himself a better candidate in a competitive job market.
During that time, he met David Trammell. Keenum had gotten a job at MSU Extension as a marketing specialist and as his boss, Trammell began making plans for Keenum to enter the doctoral program. That was not on Keenum’s agenda, but with a “high degree of motivation” from his boss, Keenum entered the program and received his third degree from MSU.
His first job was as faculty member at MSU. He loved the campus and was happy with his position, when he was asked to go to Washington D.C. to work Senator Thad Cochran.
He had reservations about leaving. But three people who have served as some of the primary influences of his life, helped him along. Dr. Zacharias, Dr. Louis Wise and Dr. Verner Hurt encouraged him to take the chance.
“They were a huge influence at a critical time in my career,” Keenum said. “And I was able to have a 20+ year career in Washington that I could not have ever really dreamed about.”
And even after leaving the campus, he remained involved with MSU. While working with Sen. Cochran and as undersecretary for the United States Department of Agriculture, Keenum addressed federal funding needs and was able to develop personal relationships with a variety of people throughout the nation who make MSU a stronger, better university. During that time, he was able to make connections that have been valuable in his position as university president.
For the Keenums, the return to MSU was an opportunity to raise their young family in their home state and make a difference at locally.
“Serving as MSU President is a labor of love for me and for Rhonda,” Keenum said. “It truly is a team effort. She is a great ambassador for the University and for the state of Mississippi. We take that role of ambassador very seriously. Serving as MSU President has been very fulfilling, both personally and in my career.”
Keenum said his biggest accomplishment was marrying his wife, Rhonda, and enjoying their four children. They had the triplets in 2004, “Rett,” “Katie,” and Mary Phillips; and “Torie” in 2006.
Rhonda is a full time MSU First Lady and very active mom. She also owns her own public relations firm where she continues her consulting practice. Rhonda is also on the board of directors for the CREATE Foundation and for Entergy Mississippi.
In his free time, Keenum enjoys his family and as many children’s activities as he can fit in. Rett and Torie enjoy golf with dad at every opportunity.
Rett takes golf and guitar lessons and over the summer, participated in football, baseball, golf and basketball camps at MSU.
The girls take dance, piano and tumbling lessons and over the summer they participated in volleyball and basketball camps. Torie also attended golf camp over the summer.
All of the children take art classes, and are starting back to school at Starkville Academy, where Torie is in kindergarten and the triplets are in first grade.
The children’s activities help the Keenums become involved in aspects of the Starkville community that many MSU Presidents have never seen.
“This has always been our home,” Keenum said, “and we want to be as involved as we can. We love this campus and we love this community.”