Just being in the company of Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter, even for just a short while, stimulates you upon hearing all of the great opportunities awaiting our beloved university. His enthusiasm is contagious, but it goes beyond this. You can sense in his responses that a well-charted path has been clearly thought out and the “Best Days” for Ole Miss are still ahead.
HottyToddy.com had the rare pleasure to spend an hour with our new Chancellor recently. It was time well spent!
HottyToddy.com: Chancellor Vitter, thank you for meeting with us as we know your time is maxed out regularly. You have now been on the job about 14 months. What in your view has been the greatest surprise since assuming the position?
Chancellor Vitter: I knew a great deal coming in about the university and its trajectory over the past decades. The “flagship” nature of the university and its leadership roles make Ole Miss so special and unique. In my first 100 days, I met with some 200 groups in a listen & learn Flagship Forum, which generated several new insights for me. The passion of the people here to succeed inspires all of us to achieve new heights for the university so that we can go from great to greater. And the way the Ole Miss Family has embraced Sharon and me has made us feel at home very quickly.
HottyToddy.com: The new construction that is visible on campus presently is staggering. Specifically relating to the student union building, could you tell us its timeline for completion?
Chancellor Vitter: The student union will actually be doubling in size. The new addition will be completed by this August. Once that is accomplished, the older part will then be renovated including the exterior, which we’re anticipating being finalized in the fall of 2018.
HottyToddy.com: You have the reputation (already) of being a “workaholic.” Is it true that your normal day consists of a 12-14 hour one opposed to the more traditional 8-hour day?
Chancellor Vitter: With today’s technology, it’s easy to be involved in doing things most any time of day. I truly love the job and am passionate about it. What motivates me is reaching the full potential of this university. There are a number of key directions going forward including growing our endowment and creating a “Cultural Gateway” for the Oxford campus. We are forming exciting multidisciplinary research teams across our entire university called “Flagship Constellations” that will bring together great new recruits with the stellar faculty already here to tackle grand challenges where we can have significant positive impact. Another project I am very excited about entails us partnering with individual Mississippi towns and cities — one at a time — and bringing to bear the full spectrum of expertise across all of Ole Miss to make a real, sustainable difference. The collaborations will involve health and medicine, business and entrepreneurship, education, arts and culture, media, and public policy.
HottyToddy.com: What a visionary approach! Turning to enrollment, are we too big now or is there still room to grow over the next 3-5 years?
Chancellor Vitter: There are many people who have expressed to me that they want to maintain our “small college feel.” For planning purposes, we have a Master Plan that has identified what is needed to eventually support a campus in Oxford of 30,000, which frankly is a long way off. I anticipate slow but steady growth, primarily in a few targeted areas.
For example, we have a pressing need in Mississippi to train more doctors and nurses, which we are addressing at our Medical Center. We also need more graduate students in general, especially as a Carnegie R1 university. Our graduate enrollments have not increased at nearly the same rate in the last two decades as our undergraduate enrollments. One other area where we need some growth is international students, who currently comprise about 5 percent of students on the Oxford campus. We hope to increase that percentage to 10 percent. As a flagship institution, it is crucial that we provide our students greater understanding of international issues and cultures so that they will be successful in today’s and tomorrow’s global environment.
HottyToddy.com: Comparing Ole Miss to other SEC schools, is there any area that we are deficient or have the opportunity to improve?
Chancellor Vitter: There is one area where we have recently caught up. I’m talking about our coveted Carnegie R1 highest research activity designation. It puts us in the top 2.5 percent of colleges and universities nationwide. It recognizes our attainment of the highest research level and is instrumental in attracting the best and the brightest. We’re one of 11 SEC schools at this level, the only one in Mississippi; frankly we need two Carnegie R1 universities in Mississippi.
In terms of overall enrollment, we are noticeably smaller than other SEC institutions, currently the third smallest (MSU and Vanderbilt have fewer students). We will continue to emphasize quality over size.
HottyToddy.com: There has been significant growth in the Meek School, particularly in the area of Marketing. What do you believe is driving this growth?
Chancellor Vitter: We have the only school of Journalism I’m aware of in the nation that is significantly growing. Many are shrinking or shutting their doors. I attribute the success of the Meek School to its great leadership, faculty, and curriculum, especially in its embrace of new media. The degree in Integrated Marketing Communications is at the forefront nationally, as we are taking full advantage of big data and the social media environment. The reputation of the visitors we invite to campus is yet another reason for this growing national success story.
HottyToddy.com: The campus continues to reflect its natural beauty resembling a well-kept park. Are there future plans to beautify it even more and if so, could you describe for us?
Chancellor Vitter: Our campus Master Plan utilizes space in a wonderfully efficient and effective way. Just recently we were recognized as the most beautiful campus nationwide by the USA TODAY’s Reader’s Choice awards. Newsweek and the Princeton Review have similarly recognized the campus. The appearance of the campus attracts people here. As we continue to expand, there will be many opportunities to broaden the beauty of campus.
We hope the new student recreation center across Highway 6 will eventually have a pedestrian bridge connecting it. This area will create additional natural areas and green space.
HottyToddy.com: The new dormitory construction over the past 3–4 years has been impressive. Are we at capacity now or are there still more on the horizon?
Chancellor Vitter: We have recently opened some new residence halls and continue to build to catch up with the level of growth. Our fraternities and sororities are growing and an important part of our learning/living environment, and we are investigating how to create more chapters. Also, especially for graduate students, we must work with the community to address this need outside our campus.
HottyToddy.com: We now have four out-of-state recruiters. Will there be a greater emphasis looking forward in attempting to reach 50% of the student body being from out of state?
Chancellor Vitter: Our outstanding programs attract students from the nation and the world. We have students enrolled from all 82 counties in Mississippi, from all 50 states, and from 90 countries. This past fall our freshman class had more out-of-state students than in-state. The majority of our transfer students are in-state. Overall on the Oxford campus, we are about 56 percent in-state and 44 percent out-of-state. The requirements are higher for out-of-state students for admission. Once we achieve the desired goal for international students, we will be near the 50–50 percent level in Oxford. Our Medical School students are 100 percent Mississippi residents, and all the schools at the UM Medical Center are heavily (if not exclusively) in-state.
HottyToddy.com: What is the greatest challenge facing Ole Miss in 2017?
Chancellor Vitter: Most immediately it’s the budget. We are experiencing declining revenues in the state. The IHL has a funding formula that is not even being implemented; if it were funded, we would get about 15 percent more from the state for the Oxford campus than we do get, despite the current budget environment. Because of underfunding, we are having to be quite entrepreneurial. Tuition from our out-of-state students is bridging this shortfall. We also rely increasingly on philanthropy in order to offer those special programs that make Ole Miss one-of-a-kind and an incredible learning environment, such as the Sally M. Barksdale Honors College (which I’m convinced is the best in the nation), the Haley Barbour Center for Manufacturing Excellence, the Trent Lott Leadership Institute, the Croft Institute for International Studies, and the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement.
Another important challenge is providing our students with a safe environment, both physically and developmentally. At the root of several major issues universities face — behavioral, academic, health, sexual violence — is the misuse of alcohol and/or drugs. We conduct a survey at the start of each semester to identify the biggest challenges and to inform our outreach and intervention practices. We are confronting these issues through greater educational efforts and working more closely with at-risk organizations such as fraternities and sororities.
HottyToddy.com: How do you define success?
Chancellor Vitter: We are always striving to grow, improve, excel. We are currently working on a new strategic plan, including metrics that evaluate our progress in key aspects of our mission of learning, discovery, and engagement. Beyond what we can measure quantitatively, there are also important intangibles that reflect the pride and prestige of the university. For example, people know and trust Ole Miss because of the success and impact our graduates have in their leadership roles.
HottyToddy.com: Your personal family is a role model for students and those desiring to be the best they can be in life. Will our Ole Miss family have more opportunities to interact with your children or read more about their success stories via interviews? (Dr. Vitter’s three children all have engineering degrees from Notre Dame.)
Chancellor Vitter: Sharon and I have three great kids who have accomplished a lot in their technical fields, but at the same time are very well rounded and passionate about the humanities and arts. And they do come here on a regular basis; they can’t keep away!
HottyToddy.com: On your personal list of future objectives, what ranks number one on the list at this time?
Chancellor Vitter: Enhancing our “flagship status.” In establishing our flagship constellations, we will become a research and innovation leader in finding solutions to the world’s toughest problems. Enhancing our learning environment as one of the nation’s very best is also atop the list. Those two goals are closely interrelated.
HottyToddy.com: Lastly, your open door, transparent communications style has been a distinguishing factor of your tenure so far. What are some of the ways you engage with Ole Miss stakeholders and why is it important to you?
Chancellor Vitter: Sharon and I regularly meet with people all over the state and really enjoy getting to know them and hearing their thoughts and input. Upon arriving here, we conducted the 100-day Flagship Forum listening and learning tour. These interactions build trust and enhance relationships. To date, I believe I have also posted 40 letters/blogs/statements covering many important issues to the entire Ole Miss family. I also rely upon social media to keep in constant touch with people on a daily basis, since the university is a big place. Please follow me on Twitter or Facebook!
Steve Vassallo is a HottyToddy.com contributor. Steve writes on Ole Miss athletics, Oxford business, politics and other subjects. He is an Ole Miss grad and former radio announcer for the basketball team. Currently, Steve is a highly successful leader in the real estate business who lives in Oxford with his wife Rosie. You can contact Steve at email@example.com or call him at 985-852-7745.