Jim Coll

When you peel back the layers of USM’s personality, you find grit

South Mississippians are a tough bunch. I admit there are others bigger and stronger who are better resourced—and who many would argue have better pedigrees. In many cases, they’d be right.

But not tougher. If you have been around us for any length of time you understand if we are defined by one characteristic, as Southern Miss alumnus Rodney Richardson and branding expert likes to say, it is grit.

If you’re not familiar with south Mississippi or the University that calls that region home, here’s some recent history. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit us—hard. Without complaint, and with the help of many others, we picked up the pieces and moved forward. That meant many University of Southern Mississippi faculty, staff and students got back to work within days of the storm, even as their own homes were uninhabitable or no longer existed. Today, our Gulf Park Campus is fully restored and exceeding pre-Katrina numbers in enrollment and prestige. In 2013, a tornado hit our Hattiesburg campus, and hundreds of us could not wait to get to work as our new president, Rodney Bennett, reacted as though he had been here for years when he said this:

Like many have said, character is not created in times of great difficultly, it is revealed. And when you peel back the layers of south Mississippi and USM’s personality—and when we are at our most vulnerable—what’s left is grit. It’s an ability to get the job done no matter the circumstances. Perhaps even more accurately defined, it’s an ability to get the job done especially when circumstances are challenging, or even appear impossible. It is defined by men like former basketball coach M.K. Turk, who upon his death Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari said of him, “He recruited without the advantages of the other schools in his region and never complained.  He just went out and won.”

And it is also perhaps best explained by the famous words of Jackson sportswriter Mickey Spagnola who wrote after our Golden Eagles had just defeated Bear Bryant’s Alabama football team in 1982, “Always choose Southern Mississippi. Don’t fight Southern Mississippi. No matter how hard you fight, these folks will fight harder. These people know sweat. They know hard work and they know nothing ever comes easy. They are hard, I’m telling you, they are hard.”

USM grit is deep-rooted as well, going back to the early 1900s and the founding of the institution, which happened only after years of debate in the legislature, and without identification of suitable funding for operation. And it is evident today in nursing student Corey Auerswald, who by all accounts is kind, determined—and gritty. If you don’t know her story, I encourage you to read USM student Julius Kizzee’s story in the Student Printz. Corey is a wife, a mother, a nursing student and a breast cancer survivor. She has completed rigorous coursework in USM’s nurse anesthesia program while enduring chemotherapy. She is an inspiration to many.

Corey Auerswald

Yes, south Mississippians are defined in many ways, but if I have to pick one word to do that I go back to grit. As we’ve learned the journey to the top is not a straight and smooth path. But if that is the case, it is also true that no one gets back up as frequently as USM and south Mississippi does—that’s the thing about grit as a defining quality. And like Corey Auerswald, you don’t quit. You don’t complain. You get back up. You press forward. And eventually, you win.

Dr. Michael Forster

Is California’s drought just the cutting edge of the climate crisis?

Governor Brown of California – a state reeling in the unyielding grasp of a 500-year drought and raging wildfires – had this to say on Sunday:

“This is a crisis that’s not like a political problem, Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals,” he said. “This goes to the very foundation of what it means to be human in a world of living things…. The drought is just a very, very tiny foretaste of what’s to come.”

Brown also noted that in any head-to-head contest of “man vs. nature,” nature wins, hands down.  The Enlightenment dream of a human “conquest” of nature through science turns out to be less godlike aspiration than self-delusion.  Homo sapiens have plundered the earth in an ever-accelerating 300-year rampage of resource extraction and atmospheric carbon pollution, only to find that the track we’re on ends in ecocide and mass extinction, including our own species suicide.

Can we get off the track before it’s too late?  Is there still time to preserve our own health and the health of the planet that we cannot live without?

Dr. Michael Forster

New “navigator” project will expand health access in South Mississippi

The School of Social Work’s just been awarded a major federal Health and Human Services grant to connect medically uninsured low-income Mississippians living in the southernmost state Health Dept. districts (7, 8, and 9) with health insurance options.  In all, 24 counties will be covered over the course of three phases corresponding to successive open eligibility periods of the landmark Affordable Care Act.  “In-reach” activities will partner with existing service agencies to train “navigators” to assist clients with the complexities of the health insurance marketplace.  “Out-reach” activities will publicize and otherwise educate citizens about available opportunities.

Given that Mississippi declined the federal offer to expand Medicaid under the ACA, this alternative effort to increase coverage is more important than ever.  Despite population and higher-income concentrations in the Hattiesburg area and along the Gulf Coast, South Mississippi is largely rural and poor.  As many as a third of citizens lack health insurance and face extraordinary obstacles accessing health services, especially those (what we need most of) of a preventive nature.

Also of significance – the Navigator project builds on the fine work of Hattiesburg’s E3 project, a grant-funded effort facilitated by Mayor Dupree through the National League of Cities.  But for the exceptional “town-gown” relationship between the city administration and the School of Social Work, E3 – the success of which surely helped snag the new Navigator funding, expected to top $1.2 million over three years – would never have happened.

Congratulations to the team that successfully pursued funding for this vitally important work.

Dr. Michael Forster

Concluding fall 2015 convocation remarks

Following is some of what I would have said in closing remarks had time not run short at Thursday’s 90-minute college convocation.

Ours is a time of change and challenge, to be sure.  At the university level, the changes are many and rapid, almost dizzying – a new vice-president for student affairs, reorganization and new leadership at the Foundation and Alumni Association, as well as in recruitment and admissions; and, of course, a provost out, an interim provost in, and a national search underway for the next vice-president for academic affairs, who will inherit a more muscular office, with a more ubiquitous campus presence, than the last provost enjoyed.  We trust, of course, that all these changes will prove fruitful, stimulating formation of a “rising tide that raises all ships.”

We can also point to a cascade of favorable changes closer to home, including:

  • New department/school leadership – Ed Goshorn in Speech & Hearing Sciences, Elaine Molaison in Nutrition & Food Systems, and Scott Piland in Kinesiology all came on board as unit leaders on July 1. We look for great things from each and all.  (And here we should not miss the opportunity to pause and thank “stepped-down” chairs Steve Cloud and Kathy Yadrick for their many years of excellent, stable leadership during some very tough, very trying years.)
  • Enhanced leadership at Gulf Park, with the addition of Rene’ Drumm as associate dean for CoH at the Gulf campus. Her full-time administrative presence will dramatically enhance our capacity to support the work of our unit leaders and faculty on the coast.
  • New faculty and staff, including five very promising tenure-track faculty additions, many of whom you’ve met today. As always, new folks bring new energy and fresh ideas, key ingredients for a richer academic “gumbo” of opportunity. Bienvenue!
  • Image-building “brand” changes – Two units sloughed off dated names for ones with more substance and catchet: Human Performance & Recreation gave way to the contemporary Kinesiology (making us at present the only School of Kinesiology in the state), and the more-than-a-mouthful National Food Service Management Institute embraced the new-and-improved name, Institute for Child Nutrition, the college’s only dedicated, non-instructional applied research unit.
  • Transfer of the Sport Management program to the College of Business. Admittedly, this was not an uncontroversial downsizing decision on my part, but one that I firmly believe will prove to enhance significantly the cohesion, coherence, and long-term productivity of the School of Kinesiology.  We wish our colleagues in Sport Management, and CoB generally, only the very best.
  • Building developments – Two new space ventures are in the works, both crossing the paths of College of Health and College of Business: 1. The renovation of Joseph Greene Hall, former home of CoB, slated to begin this academic year, will house three of our six academic units (Social Work, Nutrition, and Public Health) and the dean’s office; and 2. A replacement building for the “condemned” Holloway Complex at Gulf Park, a wholly new building that will be shared by CoH and CoB. Planning for both projects is now fairly well advanced, though far from complete.
  • New externally funded projects for valuable work across a broad range, in both the research and service arenas, totaling millions in new funding over a multi-year span, much of it arriving with the much-coveted “full Facilities & Administrative rate” attached.
  • Far, far too many planning efforts, curricula revisions, project developments and student-centered quality improvements to detail here.

So, certainly we’re witnessing some really good changes in the college; and, just as certainly, there are more of these good things to come.  At the same time, we face some very significant – if hardly “new” – challenges, including compressed budgets and reduced staffing, difficulty of complying with some accreditation standards, inadequate space for teaching and research (even with the renovation of Joseph Greene), and painfully limited capacity to respond to new educational, research and service opportunities aligned with our mission of health promotion.

That qualification aside, let me conclude by affirming that the heart of who we are as a college, the core of my standard “elevator speech,” if you will, remains true, despite the many obstacles we face –

First, we are about excellence in professional education, producing annually hundreds of health professionals, without which the local and regional health and human services infrastructure would rapidly falter.

Second, we about conducting applied research that meaningfully impacts the quality of life of individuals, families and community – from child nutrition, to rehabilitation of disabled vets, to preventing and reducing obesity, to improving the ways we can help kids speak, to treating psychic trauma, to plotting the path of integrated health services, and much more.

Third, we are about community and pubic agency partnerships – We boast 400+ instructional sites, contracts for work with six state agencies, and a half-dozen research collaborations – that strengthen communities and extend agency capacity and impact on the health and well-being of Mississippi residents and others in the region, and indeed the nation.

That’s who we are, and we’ll keep doing what we do until…, well, until we can’t do it anymore.  Thank you for being here, thank you for bearing up, thank you for never giving up the movement forward, despite the many obstacles along the way.

Jim Coll

The World Championships, Miss America and The Emmys: Big Days Approaching for USM Alumni

Several Southern Miss alumni will compete on the world’s biggest stages over the next 4-5 weeks.

This week, Tori Bowie, the United States champion in the 100-meter dash is among the favorites at the World Championships in Beijing, China. The finals of that event are scheduled for Sunday, August 23. Tori, who was a two-time NCAA long jump champion at Southern Miss, may also compete in the 4 x 100-meter relay.

On Sept. 13, Miss Mississippi Hannah Roberts will compete in the Miss America Pageant. Hannah was an Honors College student who graduated with a biochemistry degree in May, and has been accepted to UMC. Among Hannah’s many honors was a Goldwater Scholarship—a national award honoring the next generation of great research scientists. She was one of only three Mississippians to win the award in 2013.

Finally, a National Geographic documentary based on a book by Dr. Andrew Wiest has been nominated for an Emmy Award. Dr. Wiest is not only an alumnus but also a founding director of the University’s Dale Center for the Study of War of Society. His book “Boys of ‘67” that centers on a company in the Vietnam War, was the inspiration for the documentary “Brothers in War.” The Emmy for best documentary will be awarded on Sept. 28.

Of course, we also hope that in late September, Major League Baseball’s Minnesota Twins will be making a run for the postseason as well. Alumnus and MLB All-Star Brian Dozier leads the Twins and was a key member of the Southern Miss 2009 College World Series team.