Learning How Mississippi Can Compete

Vision session brings together university, state, national leaders

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker addresses participants at the ‘Mississippi Competes’ conference at The Inn at Ole Miss. The event, aimed at creating more economic development in Mississippi, drew more than 40 people, including local and state government officials, business and venture capital leaders, and experts in several high-tech fields. Photo by Logan Kirkland/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – How the University of Mississippi can lead Mississippi into becoming a more prominent leader in transportation, health care, technology and other sectors was the focus of a recent “vision session” forum on campus.

More than 40 people gathered Friday (Nov. 5) at The Inn at Ole Miss for “Mississippi Competes” to hear from state and national leaders on their vision for Mississippi and how the university can educate students to realize that vision.

The session focused on the world’s ever-changing economy, how to create more economic development in Mississippi and how to stop the “brain drain” of young Mississippians leaving the state.

“The economy of today is not the economy of tomorrow,” said keynote speaker and panel moderator Bill Cook, a venture partner at Columbia Capital, Mississippi native and university alumnus who helped organize the event. “We must take immediate steps to ensure that we not only compete, but we win. Who doesn’t like to win?

“I’m tired of Mississippi being at the bottom of the good lists and at the top of the bad. Let’s get to the midsection of these lists and then let’s flip the script ultimately to the top of the good and the bottom of the bad. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘Good, better, best. Never let it rest until the good is better and the better is best.’ And we have the ability to do that. All of us. We can do better. We must do better. We owe it to ourselves and future generations.”

Embracing Innovation and Technology

The session included executives from Google, the Tennessee Valley Authority and venture capital firms; and experts in the fields of autonomous vehicles, biomechanical engineering, communications infrastructure services, cybersecurity, robotics and telehealth. U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill and other local and state government leaders also attended.

Chancellor Glenn Boyce said he wanted to learn how the university can help the state expand its economy, especially by attracting corporations and building an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“We’re committed to working to support the advancement of Mississippi,” he said. “We do that through research and community engagement, but we’re also about promoting an economic environment for our state.

“I want you to know that we, as a university, are working on technology innovations as fast as we possibly can. We cannot let technology pass us by. We cannot let the advancement and the opportunities that technology is going to bring to the future pass us by as a state. We have to embrace, engage and get this figured out, and we have to do it fast. This university wants to be a major player in all aspects to drive this state forward.”

Chancellor Glenn Boyce speaks at the ‘Mississippi Competes’ conference at The Inn at Ole Miss. Boyce told participant that the university is working to spur innovation and educate a new generation of entrepreneurs and workers in a range of fields to help the state expand its economy. Photo by Logan Kirkland/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Boyce described to panelists the many ways that the university was helping the state progress, noting that UM rose to No. 67 among public universities on U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” for 2022, the university’s second-highest ranking ever and an improvement of 10 spots from the 2021 list.

He also pointed out that enrollment is rising, graduation and retention rates are up and 91 percent of UM graduates are still employed 10 years after graduation. The success of the university also comes on athletic fields, as Ole Miss athletics programs finished No. 22 nationally in the 2020-21 Learfield IMG College Directors’ Cup standings.

Boyce and others also mentioned the recent campus groundbreaking of the new Jim and Thomas Duff Center for Science and Technology Innovation, a $175 million, 202,000-square-foot marvel designed to boost science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and strengthen Mississippi’s workforce, job market and economy.

“I appreciate Chancellor Boyce and Bill Cook for convening this vision session,” Wicker said. “As we look to the future of our state, this conference has helped identify steps we can take to ensure we can compete nationally and globally.”

Wide-ranging Discussion

Panels featured Melissa Froelich of Aurora, Anthony Giambrone of the StepStone Group, Joe Hoagland of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Jack Kerrigan of Razor’s Edge Ventures, Brad Kilbey of Zayo, Gary McCarthy of Aurora, Daniel Shumate of Campbell Clinic Orthopaedics, Art Spratlin of Butler Snow, Dr. Richard Summers of the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Mike Upshur of the U.S. Google Operations Center.

The group discussed how UM could become a destination for employers searching for well-educated students, innovators and scholars who are prepared to be the leaders of tomorrow’s economy.

“It is a competitive world out there,” said Cook, who serves on the board of directors of the Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services. “And we have to take immediate action toward winning new business, expanding our minds and our offerings, and to drive significant economic growth for our generation and those who follow.”

Although the talk focused on technology and economic development, the panelists also said the university shouldn’t forget to educate students on the basic skills needed to be successful in tomorrow’s world, including communicating effectively.

Graduates need more than STEM educations, said Froelich, director of government relations for Aurora, a Pittsburgh- and California-based self-driving vehicle technology company.

Froelich mentioned that Aurora is teaching certain employees to clearly communicate in a business context through public speaking classes to build consensus around their ideas and make sure their voices are heard.

“This gives them the confidence as they are building their skill set so when they have their big idea, they can go and put together all the things that they need so they are in a stronger position to lead and sell that idea,” she said.

Making More ‘Made in Mississippi’

While preparing for “Mississippi Competes,” Cook said he had met with many people across campus and was amazed at the people, facilities, research and innovation he witnessed.

“The energy and passion shared by faculty and students alike are amazing, he said. “The innovation that’s coming out of this university’s classrooms and laboratories is nothing but incredible.

“Collectively, our group gathered today, has the opportunity to advance some of this innovation into our local communities across the state.”

Beyond the under-construction Jim and Thomas Duff Center for Science and Technology Innovation, that work is happening at several centers and facilities across campus, Cook said, citing Insight Park, the National Center for Physical Acoustics and the National Center for Natural Products Research. He also talked about the Haley Barbour Center for Manufacturing Excellence and how the unique program is developing the next generation of leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs in modern manufacturing.

“I’m proud to know that Ole Miss is educating a new generation of manufacturing leadership that we must embrace and bring opportunities back to our communities, and helping to solve manufacturers’ ever-present challenges more efficiently and more effectively,” he said. “The faculty has done an amazing job with many Mississippi-based companies and employment opportunities for graduates.

“As a consumer, when buying a product, the only thing I like seeing more than ‘Made in the USA’ is when it is stamped with a tag that says, ‘Made in Mississippi.’ It makes me proud.”