Ben Burnett knows he has his work cut out for him as the new president of William Carey University, but one can be assured he’s not stepping into that prestigious role without a plan.
On August 16 – his first day on the job – Burnett took the opportunity during the university’s Fall 2022 Faculty/Staff General Assembly to share his goals, expectations and insight heading into the new administration. The assembly was held at Thomas Fine Arts Auditorium on the Hattiesburg campus of WCU.
Burnett laid out his ideas for the first 100 days of his presidency, which includes measures such as establishing a calendar system, creating a staff organization, establishing alumni contests in each department of the university, updating the crisis response plan and finishing community college Memorandum of Understandings with Jackson-South. Other points include a devotion on Mondays, “William Carey Wednesdays,” scheduling community college days throughout the year, and scheduling Baptist church visitation for the upcoming year.
“Number 1, we want to communicate consistently; if there’s anything we lack at William Carey University, it’s how we communicate, so we’re going to communicate consistently,” Burnett said. “(Also), we want to change the culture where everybody is a recruiter … and those recruiters are twice as hard as they’ve ever worked, and they’re trying different ways and different techniques.
“We’re going to follow the chain of command – everything doesn’t go to the president, and everything doesn’t go to the vice president. And we want to create a culture of customer service, because without our students – without our customers – we would not be employed, and we would not be meeting our mission.”
One of the first issues Burnett will help to tackle is the declining enrollment among universities across the country, which is caused in part by lower birth rates throughout the nation. That, in turn, will lead to colleges scrambling for a smaller number of students.
“In addition to that, Mississippi is one of two states in the whole nation that has a declining population as a state, so we have less people in our borders to go get, and we have less people out there,” said Burnett, who takes over for the retiring Tommy King. “So we’ve got two choices: we can either just say ‘poor, pitiful me,’ and we can complain about it and whine, or we can go after these students.
“So we’re going to go after them, and we’re not going to take any excuses. We’ve got a recruiting team that’s been set up by our admissions department; we have the Office of Military Engagement to help lead this. We have military recruiters on our campus every day when school is in session to service our military veterans who are students, but also recruiting those as well.”
Burnett mentioned several tidbits of good news as well, including the fact that William Carey’s College of Medicine is now the largest of its kind in the state of Mississippi. That program recently welcome 206 first-year medical students.
“We’re also ranked Number 1 by U.S. News & World Report out of all medical schools in the entire country for rural areas, and that’s the mission of William Carey,” Burnett said. “And just this summer – between May and August combined – the School of Education graduated 632 students.”
The assembly also included a video presentation by vice president for Health Sciences Janet Williams, a “Best Place to Work Presentation” by Lynne Houston – vice president for University of Enhancement – and a presentation of service pins. A student affairs update was given by Valerie Bridgeforth, vice president for student affairs.
Prior to taking over as president, Burnett served as executive vice president of the university. His 36 years of experience in the field of education stretches back to 1986, when he served as assistant band director for Meridian High School. Two years later, he returned to his alma mater, Oak Grove High School, to become band director there.
While under Burnett’s leadership, the Oak Grove band consistently rated superior and grew from 50 members to more than 220. Burnett has served as president of the Mississippi Bandmasters and was the recipient of the A.E. McClain Outstanding Young Band Director award, and was inducted into the Southeast Mississippi Band Directors’ Association Hall of Fame in 2013.
In 1997, Burnett began a 10-year stint as principal of Oak Grove Middle School, during which time he also was president of the Mississippi Association of Middle Level Education and Mississippi’s Middle School Principal of the Year.
In August 2007, Burnett was elected as superintendent of the Lamar County School District, a position he was re-elected to four years later. While he was at that position, the school district was rated an “A” school district by the Mississippi Department of Education, and received state and federal grants for early childhood, school safety, dyslexia training and after-school tutoring.
Burnett retired in 2014, but soon after accepted the position of dean of the William Carey University School of Education. He was named executive vice president in April 2020.
“First of all, it’s very humbling and I’m very blessed, because I feel like I have been around so many great people in the last 36 years of education that helped prepare me for today,” Burnett said in previous story. “So I’m thankful for all the former students and parents and teachers I’ve worked with, because I truly feel like all 36 years have gone together to prepare me to make this move.
“I’m appreciative and thankful to the board of trustees, and also very grateful to Dr. King for his vision for the university, but also for him to bring me to William Carey eight years ago from my role as superintendent (at the Lamar County School District). Without Dr. King, none of this would be possible.”