"We are very dependent on each other. We are partners in about everything that goes on in this community. We depend incredibly on Starkville for services, from their police services to their fire services, to a lot of other things that impact what we do on campus. On the other hand, the city really depends on us to be the economic engine, if you will, for the community.
"Because of that relationship, it is very important, if at all possible, that we get hooked up on things as early as we can. And (Starkville Mayor) Dan Camp and I have talked about this because we want to make sure we don't surprise each other. If we have something that is going on at Mississippi State I always try to let him know as soon as possible. And he does the same with me. That way, we have a good sense on how to manage and best accommodate our desires to move this institution forward and see the city move forward.
Are there things you two are working on together that will enhance both State and Starkville?
"Things that we are currently working on together include trying to establish a joint art gallery right off the campus. I think that is a good opportunity for the community to work with our art department. There's no reason when we bring in art that we can't share that art with the downtown community. And the downtown art council is deeply engaged in bringing art in the community.
"Those are the type things we are trying to do and we want to keep going down the same path."
Doesn't Mississippi State University do things to help Starkville bring in more businesses?
"One of the things that we pride ourselves on is our research. Last year, we did the most research that we have ever done here, $186.5 million. What we would hope is that some portion of that research is incubating research. It would benefit companies that we help with their research and development activities, so that they can operationalized that research and turn it into production. That would allow us to open areas in our technology park or in the community that would have provide good paying jobs not only for our graduates, but for others that would live in Starkville, pay taxes and help increase revenue."
Does Mississippi State work with the other two cities in the Golden Triangle area of Starkville-West Point-Columbus?
"We've done a lot of work with almost everybody in the Golden Triangle area over the last several years to try and make the area attractive. We do that with Starkville, Columbus and West Point.
"Actually, we do it all over the state. We went to Batesville and worked with them on General Electric. So, anytime we get an opportunity to help a community, we do it. We have something called the Mississippi State Community Action Team. That team is designed to offer our capabilities to communities to help them to either become relevant or to increase their relevancy when it comes to bringing in jobs and bringing in companies who will bring in revenue to the local communities."
Switching gears - how is the Mississippi State Promise Scholarship program doing? That was a scholarship program you started a few months after you became president of Mississippi State.
"That is a program that recognizes young men and women who have worked hard in high school and have ended up with a 3.0 grade point average or higher but don't have the financial ability to pay for their tuition. If they apply to Mississippi State and have a 3.0 grade point average or higher, then we promise to pay their tuition as long as they maintain a certain grade point average while at Mississippi State.
"Over the years, (all four-year colleges) have had to raise our tuition and because of that we have squeezed out a section of our society who can no longer afford to attend the four-year schools. What this program does is allow those young men and women who have worked really hard and have that 3.0 or better to not be squeezed out as a result of that increase in tuition."
Have you been surprised with the success of the program?
"I was surprised with the results of the first year. We had over 100 students that we identified. And this past year, we identified another 100 students. So, it looks like it will be around 100 each year. They won't all make it (for the entire four years) because we will have some attrition, but we have attrition from all sections of our students. That means it won't grow to 400 students over four years, but it will be a substantial number of students who would not otherwise be able to go to college."
What does the program pay for?
"Right now, it's tuition. However, what we do is stack. If these students are eligible for the Pell Grant, what we do is use the Pell money (for tuition), then we top that off with the Promise program money. That allows us to also help them with some other things like their books and other expenses."
Where does the Promise Scholarship money come from?
"We are incredibly fortunate that we have a donor - L.A. Hurst in Houston, Texas. Our first resident hall, Hurst Hall, is named after him.
"L.A. was very interested in the program when I first discussed it with him. He said that it is exactly the way he would like his funds to be used. Right now, he is financing the entire thing.
"We have also just received $100,000 from the Lucky Day Foundation. They heard about the program and asked us for details about it. We put in a proposal for $100,000 to help us get the next phase of the program started. What we want to do is not only provide scholarships, but also provide tutors and mentors that will help insure that these young men and women have more than a fair chance to stay with us (until they graduate)."
Is the Lucky Day funds a one-time thing or is it going to be an annual contribution?
"It's a one-time thing, but they've asked us to put the paperwork in on an annual basis."
You've been here almost two years. What are some things your administration has achieved that you are most proud of?
"The thing I'm most excited about is the energy level that has occurred across the campus. You can't go anywhere on campus or attend alumni associations and not sense the increase in energy and enthusiasm of where the school is going.
"That is kind of a subjective measure, but I think if you ask almost anybody, we are all excited about what is going on at Mississippi State.
"Now, I will give you some objective measures.
"We went through a period of about five years where we had a flat or declining enrollment. That is really an unhealthy thing for a university because it impacts your revenue base, your energy, your enthusiasm. But in the last two years, we have overcome that lost and we are now at the highest enrollment level that we have ever been in the history of this school, over 17,000 students. We had the highest number of graduate students that we have ever had. We've had the highest number of African-Americans that we have ever had. Our retention rate was the highest that we have ever had. And that is a very important measure because what that means is these young men and women want to come back with us. I think that is something that we don't talk enough about. We make it appealing and exciting for them to come back.
"That is the enrollment/retention story, but as I mentioned earlier, we also had the highest amount of federal, state and corporate research that we have ever done. That 186.5 million dollars was actually 30 million dollars more than our past highest year. We are really excited about that as well.
"Also, over the past couple of years we have participated in activities that have not only brought hundreds, but thousands of jobs to the state. That is part of our land grant function.
"Plus, we have an incredible extension service that is as good as I have ever seen. In all 82 counties we have our fingerprints and our expertise out trying to help people with the business of this state whether it is forestry or agriculture, or bringing in jobs in the communities.
"All lof this was all facilitated by a number of things.
"For instance, the Mississippi State Community Action Team that I mentioned earlier, that was a good step for us. Our Promise Scholarship program, our Medallion Scholarship program, our Eagle Scout and Gold Scout Scholarship programs. We have established our African-American Studies program, which is the first time that we have had that here. There is tremendous excitement about that. We started an Honor Code, so that when young men and women show up on this campus they know that we are serious about honor. They will sign a contract with us about an honor system on campus. We started a minor in leadership, which I am excited about. We now have a Leadership Continuum that goes all the way from seniors in high school - our Young Guns program - to our freshman - our Day One program - to our sophomore and juniors with our Appalachian Leadership Honors program. We are doing that because we don't want to just develop engineers; we want to develop chief engineers. And not just develop business men and women, but CEOs of the companies."
"This doesn't even mention the appearance of the campus. There is not a day that goes by that I don't receive an email from somebody who hasn't been to the campus in several years who brags about how it looks like now after visiting it. That has also had an incredible impact on our recruiting."
You mentioned how the campus looks. One thing that I've noticed are the number of lights that are now on the campus. To me, that is really a security enhancement for the students on campus.
"We actually have over 5,300 light fixtures. That's not the actual number of lights because some of those fixtures have 5 or 6 lights on them. We have really put a lot of attention in the security on the campus.
"One of the things that I didn't mention is the Crisis Action team that we now have. We actually exercised them four times before what happened at Virginia Tech. So, we think we are well-prepared to respond in case a contingency occurs on campus."
Speaking of security, don't you have campus security on bicycles as well as in cars?
"Yes we do. We have patrols that are our own security police that go out on bicycles or cruise around in cars. We also have a student group that goes around with vests on. The number of students varies and they go out random in nature. What we learned in the military is if you want to deter mischievous behavior, you have to be random about it. If you are predictable, then somebody will watch you and figure out when you are going to be there. So, the trick is to be random."
What are some goals you have for Mississippi State during the next 5 to 10 years?
"This is a long term goal of mind. I would like to see us produce more Bachelor degrees for this state and the nation. I think it is useful to have our young men and women go out into the work environment with our degrees. So, we need to increase the credible Baccalaureate degrees that we are putting out. To do that, you have to increase your retention rate which increases your graduation rate later on.
"I would also like to see us continue to move forward with our research because it brings in graduate students, it brings in job opportunities, and it brings in great faculty.
"Another thing that I would like to do is increase our enrollment by 300 to 500 students a year. But to do that, we have to hire more faculty. So, one of my goals is to increase the faculty base."
Since you've been here, what has been your most pleasant surprise?
"My biggest challenge since I've been here is to take a bushel basket off a lot of people who wanted to go out and do really good things at this university. All those programs that I have already mentioned, people jumped on those and said let's move forward with them. That has been a really pleasant surprise for me."