Grant Library

In this Nov. 2, 2017 photograph, Mississippi State University president Mark Keenum, stands next to a life sized statue of then President Ulysses S. Grant, one of the exhibits in the new presidential museum that is part of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library in the Mitchell Memorial Library in Starkville. The College Board extended Keenum's contract on Sept. 16, 2021 for five years. The extension included up to $800,000 for a retention bonus, to be paid by private funds from the MSU Foundation. 

When the state College Board approved Mark Keenum’s contract extension as president of Mississippi State University on Sept. 16, they kept him at his current salary. But after 13 years and some impressive achievements, university supporters wanted to make sure Keenum not only stayed but that he was rewarded for his loyalty and success.

Thus, the College Board unanimously approved a “retention bonus” to be paid only if Keenum finishes out the new contract, which ends June 30, 2025.

Nevertheless Keenum, while expressing his gratitude to the Foundation members, asked that money for the retention bonus instead go to scholarships. It’s not a unique gesture, with university presidents across the country — including at the University of Southern Mississippi — refusing or donating salary increases.

Yet there is clearly a backstory here, one that is likely to impact the salaries of other state university presidents and raise some eyebrows.

Obviously the rather large retention bonus is bound to cause some people to flinch, even though any retention bonus paid will be done from private funds. More importantly, there is the fact that the state is now paying a larger share of Keenum’s contract than it has in the past.

The way we pay university leaders in Mississippi is interesting. It is a combination of public and private money, but even the amount of private funding must be approved — or, in some cases, actually requested — by the College Board.

In 2017, the College Board sought to bring parity to presidential salaries for the state’s four public research universities at $300,000 each for Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Southern Miss and Jackson State University. It was a raise for the latter two, with the former two having been set at that level in 2015. Of course, the real difference is in what the private foundations can pay — unquestionably a lot more at State and Ole Miss than at USM and JSU.

When Glenn Boyce was named chancellor in 2019, the College Board approved $300,000 in state funds and $500,000 in university foundation funding, in order for the Ole Miss chancellor to match that of the MSU president.

But with Keenum’s new contract, the College Board approved a new annual breakdown of $400,000 from the state and $400,000 from the Mississippi State University Foundation. No reason was readily given as to why the College Board made this change, though according to multiple sources the new split was not requested by the Foundation. 

One can only assume that as each contract for the other three research universities comes up for extension or discussion, the expectation will be that the base salary will be raised to $400,000 in public funding to again reach the parity achieved in 2017. Certainly each of the other schools now have the leverage to seek that, even though they are not all equally represented on the College Board.

As to the retention bonus, the College Board approved "the private Mississippi State University Foundation — at its discretion — to structure and invest in a retention plan" up to $800,000 to be paid wholly by the Foundation if Keenum remains through the end of the contract. The Foundation must report the amount and details of any payment to the College Board within 30 days of it being made.

In an Oct. 15 letter to the MSU Foundation board of directors, Keenum said he would rather the Foundation use “most — if not all — of this incentive for scholarships.” MSU also made this known publicly when the contract extension was announced.

Furthermore, both the College Board and MSU went out of their way to make clear that Keenum "did not seek a pay increase or other compensation." Doing so during a pandemic — despite currently flush state coffers — would be seen as rather tone deaf and could potentially cause backlash from faculty and students.

The Foundation members, however, are not as worried about the optics. Mississippi State has an impressive list of achievements during his tenure, including obtaining a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, producing a Rhodes Scholar for the first time in over a century, reaching record increases in enrollment and fundraising, and landing a presidential library. The Foundation’s only concern is keeping him happy and at the school.

One way to keep him happy would be to use $500,000 — the amount the Foundation is saving over the next five years with the increased public funding — for scholarships. Having the Mark Keenum Presidential Scholarship Fund would be a fitting legacy for a many who is highly regarded as one of the most successful university leaders in Mississippi.

And another legacy — even if unintended — is the likely increased compensation for other research university presidents in the coming years and higher private investments by foundations who want to attract and retain top talent in an increasingly competitive landscape. So long as the College Board ensures transparency with the amount and structure of the private funds used, then let the university foundations incentivize and reward success as they see fit.

SAM R. HALL is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at 662-678-1586 or Follow @samrhall on Twitter.

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