LONG BEACH, MS (WLOX) - Surprise seemed to be the prevailing reaction among USM Gulf Coast leaders following the sudden resignation of USM President Dr. Martha Saunders Friday morning. But many were also thrilled to know that Saunders will be joining the faculty at Gulf Park in the fall.
She will not only teach there, but also head-up a new women's leadership institute. Many will tell you, Saunders has already left a lasting impression on the Long Beach campus.
The restoration of several Hurricane Katrina-ravaged buildings will forever symbolize Saunders' legacy at USM Gulf Park. Nearly $26-million in construction projects are underway that will restore the campus to its former glory.
"I think she's done enormous amount of good for the university. It's a shame to see this transition," said Dr. Tom Lansford, USM Gulf Coast Academic Dean.
Tom Lansford said Saunders has always been a strong advocate for Southern Miss Gulf Coast. News of her resignation Friday morning caught him off guard.
"It was a surprise and a disappointment," said Lansford. "She's been a great leader."
Under Saunders' leadership, USM played a huge role following the BP disaster. She appointed a university-wide Oil Spill Response Team to coordinate research and work with government agencies to monitor the spill's impact.
"USM really emerged in the state as the lead institution in investigating the impact of the spill, a role we continue to play," said Lansford.
Saunders is also credited with helping the university weather budget cuts for three straight years. Despite the tough economy, enrollment reached record highs, even exceeding pre-Katrina levels.
Saunders also gave the Gulf Coast a bigger voice when it comes to decisions regarding university policies and the allocation of resources. She reinstated the vice-president position, a role Dr. Frances Lucas filled.
"I was surprised and upset that we're going to lose her as a president, but delighted when I heard that we're going to get her as a faculty on the Mississippi Gulf Coast," said Lucas.
Along with teaching, Saunders and Lucas will serve as co-directors of the new Evelyn Gandy Women's Leadership Institute. The program will be based at Gulf Park and its goal is to raise the status of women and develop leadership roles.
"She's been wonderful to the Gulf Coast, and the faculty is jumping up and down in Long Beach because they're thrilled that we're going to get to have her in our scholarly circle," said Lucas.
Tom Lansford agreed.
"I really am saddened to see her go as president, because I think she's done an enormous job as president. But at the same time, having her as a faculty member and a colleague on the coast, I think, is just going to be dynamic," he said.
Dr. Saunders will be a Distinguished Professor at Gulf Park. She will take some time in the fall to prepare for classes and will officially start teaching in January. There's no word yet what courses she'll be teaching, although her specialty is Mass Communications.