Because this is an interview packed with a lot of information that needs to be digested by all people that care about the future of Mississippi State University, I have chosen to post it in two parts. Part-1, which was posted on this page yesterday, included the search process, the importance of the selection to MSU and its alumni and friends and the people who will have the ultimate say-so in who is selected to be the next president of Mississippi State University. Part-2, includes information about individuals rumored to be candidates for the office.
The names of candidates that I have seen in various publications are Mark Keenum, chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and an MSU graduate as well as a former professor at MSU, Robert Altenkirch, a former MSU engineering dean who is president of the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Jim Cofer, a 1971 MSU accounting graduate who is president of the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
Since you know Mark Keenum and his wife Rhonda on a personal level, talk about them first.
You are correct in the fact that I know Mark and his wife Rhonda primarily due to having more dealings in Washington (DC). And I want to emphasize that I am talking about Mark and Rhonda Keenum because this is a "twofer" if there ever was one. I worked with Mark Keenum, an MSU graduate, in the '80s in the Extension Service and have known him ever since. Like so many people who know him, I consider him a very affable person, one of those folks who are just good to be around.
His career includes being a faculty member at Mississippi State. And as far as being a faculty member, he has refereed publications that usually are looked for as a key to getting a person into the door of academia. He's established his qualifications there. And he's still teaching a seminar here (at MSU) on occasion. So, he's never totally separated himself from the faculty at Mississippi State.
He's been in Washington for over ten years and has been extremely successful. He was originally hired to help establish Senator Thad Cochran's credentials in the world of agriculture and agri-business. He has been heavily involved in putting together farm bills and a variety of other legislation that is important to us here at State. And he's broadened his capabilities far beyond that. In recent years he has been Executive Assistant to Senator Cochran. He's organized and staffed the Homeland Security Committee, and more recently, the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and all the day-to-day coordinations and activities. Plus, virtually everything the senator does goes through Mark Keenum for implementation. He has dealt with many a high level issue in crucial negotiations in the partisan world that Washington is today.
His wife, Rhonda Keenum, is also a Mississippi State graduate who has a resume' that is equally long. She has been assistant secretary for trade promotion and director general of the United States and Foreign Commercial Services in the U.S. Department of Commerce, which handles activities all over the globe. And President (George) Bush called her from that position to come into the Bush White House as the White House Director of Public Liaison, where she serves now. She has a number of other stops such as being a principal in the (Robert) Dole presidential campaign. She has been highly successful in various other areas on Capitol Hill and is much in demand.
That's why I say this is a "twofer." These are two Mississippi State graduates that have made fabulous names for themselves and carry the name of the university along with them wherever they are. When I don't see Mark in Washington, I'm more likely to see him tailgating at Mississippi State football games. That's where I run into he and Rhonda a couple of times a year. Maybe not as much this past year because they just had a set of triplets. So, traveling is very, very difficult for them now. I also know that he is part of excursions up and down the east coast when the Mississippi State basketball team plays in that area.
So, not only has he been prominent for Mississippi State in the world of Capitol Hill politics and stayed in touch with faculty by teaching seminars, but he is also very much in touch with Mississippi State athletics. And he also graduated from Northeast Mississippi Community College, where he played football.
Both he and Rhonda are from rural northeast Mississippi. Their awareness of things Mississippi State is about as thorough as any two people who would probably be involved in the search.
Mark and his wife almost appear to be the ideal candidates because, as you said, they are both from Mississippi and are Mississippi State graduates, both are heavily involved in Washington politics, Mark has taught and is teaching at MSU and both seem to understand the importance of athletics to the MSU fanbase. While the athletics and teaching are important, what they would also bring to the presidential office is their understanding of how to help MSU obtain research dollars. They know the all-important ins and outs of the political process in Washington D.C.
Mark was a fulltime faculty member here after moving from the Extension Service, so he understands, like the rest of the faculty members, what it's like to wait two or three years for a raise. So, he's already clued in to the importance of taking care of the needs of faculty and, in turn, the students.
As for research monies, more and more dollars of the university pie must come from dollars that are not appropriated by the (Mississippi) legislature. The margin of excellence comes from the ability to bring in research dollars that can be translated into assistanceships and equipment and things similar to that. I think I'm safe in saying that, literally, 100's of millions of dollars have passed before his eyesight on the way to the academic world in Mississippi. And a large portion of that has been to Mississippi State University. Because of that, I am sure that he understands the necessity of Mississippi State being a player in the appropriations of federal dollars.
And just as you said, I don't know of a door in Washington that they can't knock on and go in and almost be on a first-name basis because of past working relationships and making sure they kept those ties well-established. Many other universities have already discovered this. It takes someone who can walk and talk in many worlds, not just the academic world, to be a president. If a university is going to be a player, not only in the United States, but in this world, a president has to represent the university well in the broadest community possible.
A good example of that is Louisiana State University, which just chose a Chancellor who is the retired head of NASA. He doesn't even have a Ph.D., but he came right out of the Washington research and development world. Senator David Boren, the president of the University of Oklahoma, went from the Senate to the University of Oklahoma. Lamar Alexander was President of the University of Tennessee after he was governor. Now, he's in the Senate in Washington. I could name 50 or 60 others who have gone that route because of the need to take advantage of every opportunity for a university.
Mississippi State people thought highly of former MSU President Zacharias. Are there similarities in Mark and him?
I think one thing that Mississippi State people need to see, and I think they have seen it with (current MSU President) Charles Lee and they saw it with Dr. Zacharias, is the kind of love for Mississippi State that makes them feel that their interests are in very good hands. They don't want to feel that their interests are being traded off or played for individual prestige, but that the concern and love for Mississippi State are first and foremost. I think that is one thing they could be comfortable with from Mark and Rhonda Keenum. It was clear Dr. Zacharias also thought of Mississippi State as his own. And Mississippi State's success was his success. And I think we benefited by it. The same can be said for Charles and Pat Lee.
Look at the huge enrollment gains that we had. We became, by far, the largest university in the state during President Zacharias' time. Our research went up so that for many years we made the claim that research money coming to Mississippi State totaled more than the other seven Mississippi universities combined. There were many things that we could point to with pride. I don't think that we have slipped back since then, but the University of Mississippi made a choice that was a tremendous fit for them when they hired Robert Khayat as their Chancellor. He, in his heart, made sure to maximize the successes at the University of Mississippi. And he's been successful at doing that. I don't think we should purposely wish that those should be limited in order that we can stay ahead of them. I think we need to maximize what Mississippi State is capable of doing and use what we have been blessed with as a university. Dr. Lee recognized this with his "Outreach and Engagement Emphasis." He understands that we should maximize who we are in this state. If we do that, then we don't have to worry about competition from any of the other universities. We can simply wish them well.
How would you describe Mark and Rhonda Keenum as an MSU person talking about other MSU people?
I think they are more typically aligned with the rank and file Mississippi State alumni who keep up with what is going on here. They want to know how the basketball team is doing, how things are going on campus or other things MSU related. But they also keep up with MSU pretty well on their own. I'm sure they are Gene's Page subscribers or, at least, have access to it somehow. They are probably more typical down-home alumni types than most folks in Washington that are Mississippi State graduates. At the same time they are part of the Mississippi State family in Washington in a big way.
Although I realize you don't work directly with Jim Cofer and really don't know him as well as you do Mark and Rhonda Keenum, what do you know about him?
He is a Mississippi native who is a Provine High School graduate. My career hasn't caused me to cross paths with him. I knew him a little bit when he was in school here. I also knew him when he was working here. Not only did he work at MSU, but he also was the budget chairman of the IHL staff. So, he's very familiar with the institutions of higher learning in the state of Mississippi. He also worked in the legislature for the Legislative Budget Office of the state of Mississippi. He's an Accounting and MBA graduate of Mississippi State. He received his DBA from Arkansas, I think. He's built a stellar career in the financial area of higher education. This includes steps not only here but also in the university of Missouri system, and also at a troubled University of Louisiana-Monroe campus, where he has brought stability to that university. So, he's earned his stripes in academic administration. I would judge him as a person that is imminently aware of and qualified in the internal machinations of university administrations.
His entire career has been on the finance side of university administration until he became president at the University of Louisiana-Monroe in, I think, 2002. I am very proud of the fact that he is a Mississippi State University graduate who is a president of a university. His successes in higher education finances speak for themselves.
Who are some other candidates that you have heard about?
Robert Altenkirch has had two tours at Mississippi State. I've seen him mentioned in the Northeast Daily Journal as a possibility, but I haven't heard his name as much in the rumor mill, so to speak, as some of these others. He was Dean of Engineering at Mississippi State University and later Vice-President of Research when he was lured away to be president of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which is a university in New Jersey similar to Georgia Tech. It was on hard times and the state of New Jersey was considering merging it with other universities when they hired Dr. Altenkirch. From all indications, he has done a very good job of turning that ship around and removing that possibility from the horizon. He is a known quantity around here. Research under him, when he was Vice-President of Research, was very, very successful.
And there are others out there, such as Frances Lucas, the President of Millsaps College. She has two degrees from Mississippi State University and is the daughter of Aubrey Lucas, the longtime University of Southern Mississippi president. She is still a loyal Mississippi State person and has been a success at Millsaps, and would be a very capable president.
I've also heard there are others that are very much submerged due to various reasons.
This is her bio prior to being selected to serve in the White House - Rhonda Keenum Bio
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.