When student leaders joined Linda L. M. Bennett on the University of Southern Indiana campus this April, they learned the new USI president wasn’t just there to answer questions. She was there to listen.
What she heard was the students “want their university to be more visible,” she says. “Our students say more people need to know just how strong a university this is.” The feeling is mutual for Bennett, who enjoyed a similar campus-wide enthusiasm at Northern Kentucky University where she once served as chair of the political science department. When she left NKU in 1999, she mentioned to the dean, “If I ever have a chance to get back to an institution that is young and hungry the way Northern Kentucky was, I would do it.” When a position opened at USI in 2003, he called Bennett: “This is the one.” As she was leaving from her on-campus interview for the role of USI’s provost and vice president for academic affairs — a job she landed — she informed her husband, “If they call, we’re coming.”
What Bennett saw at USI had nothing to do with rankings, she says. She’s never followed school rankings. In 1994, she began her higher education career at Wittenberg University — a liberal arts school in Ohio with a rich 167-year history. When she left there for NKU, a young public university just south of Cincinnati, “I had folks questioning my sanity,” she says. But, “it’s not about the rankings,” she says. “It’s about the quality of what’s happening at the institution, and young institutions always are at the beginning of building that reputation and building that tradition.”
When she officially began as USI’s third president in the school’s history on July 1, she followed a productive predecessor, H. Ray Hoops. His numerous accomplishments include quadrupling the university’s annual operating budget from $22 million to $100 million, constructing $219 million in new or expanded facilities, and growing enrollment by 34 percent to a more diverse student body of 10,000.
While it’s easy to quantify his achievements, Bennett believes Hoops’ strongest asset was his wisdom. To follow his leadership is “a privilege and a bit humbling,” she says. “Dr. Hoops has been a tremendous mentor. He was very helpful in the course of the transition — both in terms of offering advice and, at times, in terms of just saying, ‘You’re on your own.’”
With his encouragement, Bennett looks to the future without forgetting USI’s humble beginnings. “The creation of this university was about serving the region,” she says, “so we were truly ‘of the people.’ We were created with their interests at heart.” One flagship effort for cultural outreach Bennett points to is USI’s stewardship role in New Harmony, which includes a branch of theatrical programs in the small community rich in artful success stories.
To achieve sustained success, she’ll continue to rely on her USI peers. “One of the most rewarding things has been the quality of the teams I’ve been able to work with,” she says. “The vice presidential team here is outstanding.” Even as president, she says, “You never accomplish anything by yourself.”