Saunders to be co-director of women's institute (Updated 1:55 a.m.)

USM President Martha Saunders will become co-director of a women's institute at USM Gulf Park beginning this fall.

Saunders announced this morning that she is stepping down as president, effective June 30. In the fall she will become co-director of the Evelyn Gandy Women's Leadership Institute, said Frances Lucas, vice president of USM Gulf Coast.

Lucas also will be a director of the institute.

Lucas said she admired Saunders for what she has accomplished at USM in the past five years.

"We're very sad to lose her as our president, but the community of scholars on the Coast are thrilled that she is joining us," Lucas said.

The state College Board will begin its search for a new president at the University of Southern Mississippi right away, officials said this morning.

Hank Bounds, state commissioner of higher education, said the College Board will discuss a timeline for choosing a new president at the May meeting.

"I have enjoyed working with Dr. Saunders to help move the University of Southern Mississippi forward," Bounds said. "She has fostered a climate of academic success while enhancing the national image of the university and expanding its national research presence."

Saunders cited "personal reasons" as the reason she is stepping down.

“After five of the most professionally enriching years of my career, I have decided to step down as president of The University of Southern Mississippi for personal reasons,” Saunders said. “It has been an honor to serve with you as we, together, have moved our beloved university forward to record enrollments, increased private giving and exciting new building projects. I believe I am leaving Southern Miss better than I found it and look forward to being a part of its future as a member of the faculty.”

Saunders held a press conference at the university with Bounds and Ed Blakeslee, president of the state College Board.

Saunders will return to the classroom at the Gulf Coast campus this fall but will help with the transition to a new president.

"The board appreciates the years of service and dedication to the university that Dr. Saunders has demonstrated," Blakeslee said. "The university has grown under her leadership, marking important milestones, such as the Centennial Celebration, and setting the stage for the future through an inclusive strategic planning process."

Saunders was hired in 2007.

The Sun Herald updates this story as more details develop.