Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Dr. Rodney Bennett Is Priority Choice for Nebraska Chancellor After a Decade at Southern Mississippi

May 23, 2023

The University of Nebraska announced on Monday that Dr. Rodney Bennett is the priority candidate to replace retiring chancellor Ronnie Green. Bennett holds 30 years of higher-education experience, including the last near-decade as president of University of Southern Mississippi. During that time he stood ground against celebrity alumni Brett Favre’s attempts to raise funds for a new volleyball facility.

“We launched this search with a goal of finding the right leader who could articulate an ambitious vision for Nebraska’s flagship university. Dr. Rodney Bennett is that leader,” University of Nebraska President Ted Carter said. “At every turn during his impressive career, Dr. Bennett has made his institution stronger than when he arrived. He is a proven and gifted leader, an exceptional relationship-builder, and he knows from personal experience that higher education is nothing less than a transformative force in a student’s life. Rodney recognizes that Nebraska and our world need UNL to be a leading driver of opportunity, discovery and economic growth, and I believe he will chart the path to get us there.”

Bennett is the first African-American leader of a predominantly white institution of higher education in the State of Mississippi. If appointed, he will also be the first African-American chancellor in Nebraska’s history as well. He previously came to Nebraska as keynote speaker at former Nebraska president Hank Bounds’ investiture ceremony in 2016.

“The more I learn about the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the more excited I get about the opportunities for this university to help shape the future of higher education,” Bennett said in a statement. “As I have heard President Carter say, our industry is at a crucial juncture. The challenges we face are real, but with unapologetically bold leadership, the right teams in place, and an unwavering focus on our foundational priorities of teaching, research and service, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln can set a new standard of excellence among flagship universities.”

Bennett served as president of Southern Mississippi from 2013 to 2022. He oversaw the school’s reclassification from Carnegie R2 to R1. He expanded high-demand educational programs and oversaw $300 million in facilities work. According to a release from Nebraska describing Bennett’s history, athletes at Southern Mississippi averaged a 3.1 grade point average during his tenure while bringing a “conservative approach to USM’s budget management, meeting or exceeding all new budgetary metrics set by its board.” Southern Mississippi is linked to ongoing welfare fraud lawsuits in Mississippi, which is said to occur during Bennett’s time as president.

Nebraska’s priority candidate for chancellor oversaw Southern Mississippi during the state’s alleged misuse of welfare funds, including intent to build a new volleyball facility for the Golden Eagles. In 2020, Mississippi State Auditor Shad White uncovered at least $77 million in misspent welfare funds. According to the lawsuit, John Davis, former executive director of the Department of Human Services, allegedly worked to improperly distribute funds provided by federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Funds from TANF help the neediest families in one of America’s poorest states. The state then filed a lawsuit against 38 defendants, including NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre, to recover misspent funds. The lawsuit argues that money went to projects Favre supported–$1.7 million towards a concussion treatment drug and $5 million for a volleyball arena. Favre’s daughter, Breleigh played volleyball for Southern Mississippi at the time.

Favre already repaid $1.1 million in speaking fees for arrangements he did not attend. That money was originally meant to support needy Mississippi residents. According to court documents and investigative reports from Mississippi Today, Favre communicated with university officials for increased funding. That includes former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and Bennett. Court filings reflect text conversations between Bennett and Bryant. One message from Bryant plainly states “Brett keeps asking to help him fund the Volleyball Facility.”

“I’ve asked Brett to not do the things he’s doing to seek funding from state agencies and the legislature for the volleyball facility,” Bennett replied in January 2020, according to court filings. “As you know, [institutions of higher learning have] a process of how we request and get approval for projects and what he’s doing is outside those guidelines. I will see for the ‘umpteenth time’ if we can get him to stand down. The bottom line is he personally guaranteed the project, and on his word and handshake we proceeded. It’s time for him to pay up — it really is just that simple.”

Bryant responded: “That’s was my thoughts. Maybe he wants the State to pay off his promises. Like all of us I like Brett. He is a legend but he has to understand what a pledge means. I have tried many time to explain that to him.”

Favre and Bryant maintained communication while Bennett’s name is not mentioned beyond that context. Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Faye Peterson denied a request from Favre to remove him from the lawsuit. Earlier this month, Favre took the request to the Mississippi Supreme Court. Favre faces no criminal charges at this point and denies any wrongdoing.

Bennett announced his intentions to step down as president of Southern Mississippi in January 2022 effective June 2023. Bennett’s candidacy for University of Nebraska chancellor undergoes a 30-day vetting period, as required by Nebraska State Law. The university is holding public sessions with the university community and media in those 30 days. The schedule for those open sessions will be released soon, according to the university. If deemed appropriate, President Ted Carter will bring Bennett’s candidacy to the Board of Regents at its June 22 meeting.

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