Leadership opportunities expand MSU president’s influence over academics, athletics

Mississippi State University President Mark E. Keenum faces his busiest year yet with additional challenges and opportunities for leadership in academics and athletics at both a national and regional level.

While leading Mississippi’s premier research university to new heights in enrollment and growth, Keenum’s also served as chairman of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges’ Executive Council. It is the recognized regional accrediting body in the 11 Southern states and Latin America for those institutions of higher education that award associate, baccalaureate, master’s or doctoral degrees.

A graduate of Mississippi State with degrees in agricultural economics, Keenum’s interest in international food security has strengthened the university’s contributions to global economic sustainability. In 2014, he was appointed vice chairman of the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research by Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack. That same year along with other university presidents, he signed the Presidents’ Commitment to Food and Nutrition Security at the United Nations in New York City.

This marks the first time universities around the world began to share a collective focus on ending food insecurity.

But it is because of MSU’s membership in the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference that Keenum’s schedule has become even more crowded. He was elected to a two-year term as president of the SEC by his fellow presidents and chancellors at the organization’s summer meeting in Destin, Florida. He succeeds Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos.

“I am honored to be chosen to lead and to help direct policy in the most prestigious athletic conference in the nation,” Keenum said. “I appreciate the support of my colleagues in the conference during this exciting time in the history of the SEC. Because of my deep respect for the late Dr. Donald Zacharias, it is very meaningful to me to be the first MSU president to lead the SEC since his exemplary service in that same post more than 25 years ago.”

As SEC president, Keenum will head the seven-member executive committee. The panel is empowered under conference bylaws to hear and decide appeals of disciplinary and enforcement matters; fill conference vacancies; and approve or ratify conference contracts or agreements. The committee also approves the conference’s operating budget and oversees fiscal affairs.

In 2015, Keenum served a one-year term as the league’s vice president, succeeding the now retired University of Arkansas Chancellor G. David Gearhart. As vice president, he served as liaison to SEC-U, the conference’s academic arm, where he worked to promote the academic achievements of students, faculty and staff members throughout the 14-member conference. He will also continue to serve on the SEC Network Content Committee.

“I am honored to be chosen to lead and to help direct policy in the most prestigious athletic conference in the nation. I appreciate the support of my colleagues in the conference during this exciting time in the history of the SEC. ” ~ President Mark E. Keenum

That same year Keenum was also appointed as the SEC’s representative to the College Football Playoff’s Board of Managers, which governs CFP Administration LLC, the company that manages administrative operations of the College Football Playoff. Members of the company are the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences and the University of Notre Dame.

Keenum has served as president of Mississippi State since 2009. He began his career at MSU as a faculty member with the Extension Service and the Department of Agricultural Economics. He went on to serve as chief of staff to U.S. Senator Thad Cochran in Washington, D.C., and was under secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture prior to returning to Mississippi State.

He graduated from Corinth High School and earned an Associate of Arts degree from Northeast Mississippi Community College in Booneville, where he was a member of the Northeast Tigers football team.

Keenum is married to the former Rhonda Newman of Booneville, also an MSU graduate. They have four children: Rett, Mary Phillips, Katie and Torie.

Story and photo by Sid Salter