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Saunders begins work as USM president

The new president of the University of Southern Mississippi told student leaders she wants them to “ride all the rides” and exploit the university’s smorgasbord of opportunities.

Martha Dunagin Saunders, in her first day on the job Monday, also said she wants students to commit to graduating, because “it doesn’t count unless you finish,” and to remember the special responsibilities that come with being educated at a public university.

“When the people of Mississippi pooled together to start this school, it was to make life better, and that hasn’t changed,” Saunders said. “We are a public institution, and though less of our expenses are paid by tax dollars, it still converts into a responsibility. When you’ve gotten a gift, you kind of owe.”

Saunders is the first woman to serve as president of USM. She succeeds Shelby Thames, whose contract ended Sunday.

Saunders is a Hattiesburg native and USM alumna. Her most recent job was as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

During a luncheon Monday, senior Cresean Hughes, president of the Afro-American Students Organization, asked for Saunders’ thoughts on diversifying the faculty. A quarter of USM students are black, but only 3 percent of professors are.

The new president said diversity of race, gender, culture and intellectual disposition is an asset.

“I really want to spend a lot of time focusing on how we recruit and treat the people who teach here — students come and go, but faculty stay,” Saunders said. “I want this to be a place known as somewhere you want to work, where you want to earn tenure and spend your career.”

Faculty Senate President-elect Stephen Judd said the campus is responding well to Saunders’ early demonstrations of energy and optimism.

“It sounds to me like she can help people outside the university understand why they should support the university as much as they can,” Judd said.