Sid Salter Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 14, 2008

Salter: Keenum right choice at right time for Mississippi State

Never has the notion of warring factions beating their swords into plowshares been more appropriate for a Mississippi institution of higher learning than it is for my alma mater – Mississippi State University.

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On Wednesday State formally got a new president. State has a chance to put aside what has become years of internecine feuds and unite behind one of our own to lead MSU.

The state College Board formally announced that MSU alumnus and current U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary Mark Keenum will be the land-grant institution’s 19th president.

Many Mississippi State partisans have long chafed over the fact that the College Board has previously chosen Ole Miss alumnus Robert Khayat as chancellor at Ole Miss and University of Southern Mississippi graduate Martha Dunagin Saunders as president of that university, but that Keenum had twice been passed over during presidential searches.

That perception ignored the reality that the College Board chose MSU alum Malcolm Portera to lead the university from 1998 to 2001. More to the point, it ignored the fact that alumni status is no guarantee that one will make an effective university president.

But Keenum’s strong personal record of accomplishment and his demonstrated ability as a national player both in agricultural economics and public policy are strong indicators that he possesses both drive and leadership skills. That he’s been a part of three MSU presidential searches speaks to his loyalty to the institution.

Both Keenum and his wife, Rhonda, are native Mississippians with strong ties to MSU. Both have impressive records of academic, political and business accomplishments as well.

Keenum is the current USDA undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services since December 2006, appointed by President Bush. Prior to his service in the Bush administration, Keenum served a decade as chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran.

Keenum earned three degrees in agricultural economics at State and is an adjunct professor in that field at the university. His agricultural economics and farm credit credentials are respected on a national scope and he has been nominated for a seat on the Farm Credit Administration’s board.

Rhonda Keenum formerly served the Bush administration as deputy assistant to the president and White House director of public liaison. Her experience also includes a stint as assistant secretary for trade promotion and director general of the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service in the U.S. Commerce Department. The Keenums are the parents of four young children, including triplets.

At age 47, Mark Keenum offers MSU the prospects of a long tenure and the administrative stability it needs after having five presidents in less than 11 years. More importantly, Keenum understands the political realities of bringing federal research dollars to a university that has long sought status as a consistent Top 50 research institution in the nation.

He faces serious challenges.

A new Democratic majority is taking over in Washington, yet most of Keenum’s political ties have been to Republicans. Keenum also takes the reins at a time when the state is almost certain to be cutting funding for higher education.

But more than anything, the next MSU president faces the daunting task of healing fractured relations among alumni factions split by presidential searches and athletic department disagreements. But Keenum knows that.

That, in the final analysis, is Keenum’s hole card. He “gets” Mississippi and he “gets” Mississippi State. This job isn’t a stepping stone or a “Plan B” for him.

It’s his lifetime dream job – not unlike those of Khayat at Ole Miss or Saunders at Southern Miss.

Keenum bleeds MSU Maroon.

(Contact Perspective Editor Sid Salter at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail Readers can visit his blog at