Located in Hattiesburg, the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) is a comprehensive doctoral and research university. It is a nationally recognized institution, offering undergraduate and graduate degree programs in a variety of disciplines and serving approximately sixteen thousand students.
The seeds of USM were sown as early as 1877, when the movement to establish a state teachers college began. After two normal college bills failed to pass the state legislature, T. P. Scott, a member of the Mississippi Teachers Association and head of schools in Brookhaven, launched a publicity campaign. The campaign reached fruition when House Bill 204 was signed into law on 30 March 1910. With that event, Mississippi Normal College became the first state-supported school for teacher training. Forrest County and the city of Hattiesburg issued bonds for $250,000 to build the school on 120 acres of land donated by A. A. Montague, T. E. Ross, and H. A. Camp. The classroom doors opened on 18 September 1912, and the school welcomed a total of 876 students during its inaugural year.
Joseph Anderson Cook served as the school’s first president, persevering through a flu epidemic, World War I, and marauding goats on campus. In those first years, the school awarded both two-term certificates and six-term diplomas. The first baccalaureate degree was awarded in 1922 to Biloxi native Kathryn Swetman.
After a change of name to State Teachers College in 1924, a demonstration school was constructed on the campus in 1927 for the training of student teachers. In 1929 the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools accredited the school for the first time. The school offered extension courses in several counties and built a solid music program.
No longer strictly a teachers college, the school changed its name again in 1940, becoming Mississippi Southern College. It gained nationwide recognition through its Pride of Mississippi Marching Band and its athletic programs. On 27 February 1962 it officially became the University of Southern Mississippi. The first African American students were admitted in 1965. As the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, USM consisted of five colleges and offered online classes as an alternative to some traditional classes. USM now sees itself as “a national university for South Mississippi and the Gulf States.” Notable centers on its campuses include the Center for International Education, the Polymer Science Institute, and the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage.
Among the many notable USM alumni are political figures Evelyn Gandy and Phil Bryant; musician Jimmy Buffett; chef Cat Cora; football stars Brett Favre, Sammy Winder, and Ray Guy; and broadcast journalists Chuck Scarborough and Kathleen Koch.
As early as 1947 USM had a presence on the Gulf Coast through classes organized at the Methodist Campgrounds in Biloxi. As need for the classes grew, they moved to Mary L. Michael Junior High School in 1958 and then to Keesler Air Force Base in 1964. Class offerings were then expanded to include more teaching sites in Harrison and Jackson Counties, and in 1972 USM Gulf Coast was established on the Long Beach site that had formerly housed Gulf Park College for Women. The university was officially named a dual-campus system in 1998 but the coastal campus offered only junior- and senior-level courses until 2002, when the Mississippi Supreme Court granted permission for freshman- and sophomore-level classes to be held there. In addition to the Long Beach campus and teaching centers on Keesler Air Force Base and at the Stennis Space Center, USM now offers classes at several other coastal locations, including the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, the J. L. Scott Marine Education Center and Aquarium, and the Hydrographic Science Research Center. In 2013 Rodney D. Bennett became USM’s first African American president.
- Chester M. Morgan, Dearly Bought, Deeply Treasured: The University of Southern Mississippi, 1912–1987 (1987)
- University of Southern Mississippi website, www.usm.edu