NU looks to Mississippi native for growth by leaps and Bounds

Former co-workers say Hank Bounds fixes what’s broken with a combination of high expectations, modesty and a low tolerance for failure. He gets it done.

By Kate Howard / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, March 14, 2015


When elementary principal Shirley May Hunter phoned Pascagoula school district supervisors to report she was trapped in a van amid rising floodwaters, Superintendent Bounds came to her rescue, riding in on a lawn-mowing tractor. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

JACKSON, Miss. — Beach Elementary School Principal Shirley May Hunter was sitting in a flooded van, panicking as the water rose higher and she couldn’t get to work.

Relatives in the police and fire departments told her they couldn’t get to her, as heavy rain flooded the streets of her coastal Mississippi town.

Swim for it, they said.

When she called the Pascagoula school district to explain that she couldn’t get to the school, then-Superintendent Hank Bounds picked up the phone.

He asked where she was and thought a minute. He told her to sit tight and that help was on the way.

“I look up and here comes Dr. Bounds, driving the tractor from the stadium,” Hunter said. “Driving to get me out of my car to take me to safety on the big tractor they cut the grass with at the high school.”

To Hunter, it was a display of kindness and ingenuity, but to Bounds, it was nothing — just another common-sense fix to the myriad problems he has come up against in his long career in education.

Ask questions, gather information, take a calculated risk: It’s the approach that friends and former co-workers say he has always taken and the one he intends to bring as the next president of the University of Nebraska.

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Bounds' move to Nebraska prompts a lot of jabs about the weather, but it also highlights lots of hometown pride. His picture is blown up to poster size in the hallways of Forrest County Agricultural High School, his Brooklyn, Mississippi, alma mater, and Pascagoula High School, shown here, where he was principal for two years and district superintendent for four. Administrators made the posters to use him as an example: Dream big, and this is who you could become. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

When Bounds was principal years later at Pascagoula High School, dangerous hallways were made more orderly with simple fixes: a line painted down the hallway to keep traffic separated, one-way staircases, and more teachers keeping watch. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

Students hang out at a shop near Forrest County Agricultural High School, Bounds’ alma mater, in Brooklyn, Mississippi. He started his higher education at a community college, because that was all he could afford. With GI Bill money he later transferred to the University of Southern Mississippi. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

For several more weeks, Bounds will remain the commissioner of higher education for the state of Mississippi. His priority remains wrapping up his work overseeing the eight public universities of the Mississippi State Institutions of Higher Learning.

But he is emailing daily with NU staff, gathering data points between meetings, business luncheons and legislative hearings. He has also pinned a red N to his suit jacket and has visited Nebraska twice since he was hired in January.

“He’s really serious about understanding not only what’s happening, but why,” said University of Nebraska Board of Regents Chairman Bob Phares. “He wants to know ‘Why did that become a priority and what’s the plan going forward?’ ... He’s coming with all the right attitudes.”

Bounds can rattle off a list of metrics he’s reviewing: budgets, facility maintenance plans, faculty pay and hiring patterns, retirement plans, enrollment growth targets. On each measure, the question is the same. Why are we doing what we’re doing?

“I’m really just trying to get a deeper understanding of the institution, where it’s been and what the thinking is on what the next decade will look like,” Bounds said in a recent interview in Jackson.

Former co-workers and observers say Bounds fixes what’s broken with a combination of high expectations, modesty and a low tolerance for failure. He gets it done.

At 47, he has already done most of the jobs one can do in Mississippi education: He’s been a teacher, principal, superintendent, state superintendent and higher education commissioner. His move to Nebraska prompts a lot of gibes about the weather, but it also highlights lots of hometown pride.

His picture is blown up to poster size in the hallways of Forrest County Agricultural High School, his Brooklyn, Mississippi, alma mater, and Pascagoula High School, where he was principal for two years and district superintendent for four. It’s been a while since students there knew him personally, but administrators still made the posters to use him as an example: Dream big, and this is who you could become.

“The message is that you can go anywhere with your public school education,” said Wayne Rodolfich, superintendent of the Pascagoula-Gautier School District and Bounds’ assistant principal for two years.

Bounds was raised in a small town south of Hattiesburg and started his own higher education at community college because it was all he could afford. He decided to join the National Guard so he could use the Montgomery GI Bill, and he transferred to the University of Southern Mississippi.

Bounds had just lost his younger sister in a car accident when he began teaching high school history, and he rented a room in Eva Khayat’s house, said her daughter, Kathy Murray. Khayat was in her 80s and had just lost her husband. She decided to take in a boarder in part so she wouldn’t be alone; Bounds turned out to be the right boarder.

Murray said the two created a landlord-tenant arrangement — just a room, no meals — but soon they were eating dinner together nightly. Bounds’ friendship with Murray’s mom is a good example of why people around there still adore him, she said.

“He’s just such a people person,” Murray said. “He couldn’t have been real interested in what my 9-year-old had to say, but you’d never have known it. And he was very interested in what my mother had to say, which was beautiful to watch.”

When Bounds was principal years later at Pascagoula High School, retired teachers recall, he was known for tempering his firmness with modesty and kindness.

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He occasionally donned a hairnet and served lunch in the cafeteria. When he wanted more students to go to football away games, he rented them a bus — and got behind the wheel to drive it. When he caught a few students rolling his yard with toilet paper, he waved off a police officer and joked with the kids before sending them home, unpunished.

In the classroom, though, he held a hard line with teachers as well as students.

Bounds met with teachers each week through the summer, said former English teacher Pam Halbrook, and he made management changes as soon as students arrived. Dangerous hallways were made more orderly with simple fixes: a line painted down the hall to keep traffic separated, one-way staircases, and more teachers keeping watch.

Mississippi ranks at or near the bottom in most education measures, especially literacy. But Pascagoula High School students’ scores jumped quickly in literacy testing after Bounds mandated a five-minute literacy exercise each day. In fact, the scores jumped so quickly that the state came to monitor testing, concerned about cheating, the teachers said. But no cheating was uncovered, and the results remained improved.

“He believed you can train people to do the right thing,” Halbrook said. “He liked them and cared about them. At the same time he had expectations that needed to be met.”

Some teachers who were not as successful in Bounds’ view were put on improvement plans with consequences. At year’s end, Bounds fired or did not renew the contracts of 17 teachers.

It was quickly clear he didn’t tolerate negative attitudes, said retired English teacher Judy Frye.

“I think we elected to be very positive,” she said with a chuckle.

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Bounds confers with Carolyn W. Meyers, president of Jackson State University. One of his tasks as commissioner has been to better equalize a funding formula that left the smallest colleges, including Jackson State, feeling cut out. “He trusts and expects us presidents to do a good job all the time, and he gives you the space to do it,” Meyers said of Bounds. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

Bounds and his family dine at the Iron Horse Grill last month in Jackson, Mississippi. They are, from left, son Will, 14; wife Susie; and daughter Caroline, 10. Hank Bounds was the first person in his family to attend college. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

Though Bounds and the NU board have hesitated to lay out priorities yet, one clearly stated goal has been improving cooperation among the campuses. Another goal — not always stated but always underlying — is to boost donor support and maintain strong relations with the Nebraska Legislature.

In his current role in Mississippi Bounds shapes policy along with his board, and corrals the individual needs of eight universities, including three historically black institutions and a medical center. His personal priority, he said, has been pushing collegiality and cooperation as the standard operating procedure.

It is a competitive bunch, said Carolyn W. Meyers, president of Jackson State University. Though the Mississippi universities are in the same system, they are distinct entities that must compete for shrinking funding.

One of Bounds’ biggest tasks in his commissioner role has been to better equalize an antiquated formula that left the smallest colleges, including historically black Jackson State, feeling neglected.

The new formula includes incentives for growing enrollment, improving graduation rates and attracting more students with Pell Grants. Meyers said it will be a strong part of Bounds’ legacy there, because although the funding formula doesn’t give any of the colleges all it wants, it’s very thoughtful.

What Meyers found most impressive was that Bounds asked to meet with her regularly to discuss tweaks to improve the formula. He also supports Jackson State with big goals: most recently, an enrollment growth plan that has been so successful, the school ran out of dorm space.

“He trusts and expects us presidents to do a good job all the time, and he gives you the space to do it,” Meyers said.

He reaches out to the community, too, drawing on his K-12 roots to find the best hook to make people care about contributing to higher education.

At a business networking event at which he was asked to speak on the state of education, Bounds’ K-12 roots showed.

His approach when he speaks on education is always to start at the beginning: Higher education doesn’t matter much if you didn’t get children ready for kindergarten. If they aren’t reading proficiently by their third year of school, he said, it’s not college you need to worry about but the exponentially higher likelihood that those students will drop out or end up in prison.

He told the business leaders that if such students beat the odds and get to college, their ability to pay and succeed affects everyone’s bottom line.

During his interviews with NU Regents, Bounds established a catchphrase, one he already tucked into his bio on his new Twitter account: “The University of Nebraska needs to be a giant in higher education.”

“See them as future employees or future consumers,” Bounds said. “You want them to have the best education and experience, or you at least want them to have the most purchasing power as possible. If you think about it like that, it’s really just an economics issue. Supply and demand.”

No workforce, Bounds said, means no companies relocating there. He knows what that is like. He grew up in a small town with few resources, he told the crowd, and became the first in his family to go to college. Those experiences — plus raising two children: Will, 14, and Caroline, 10 — color the way he views the university system and its function.

During his interviews with the NU regents, Bounds told them he wanted to be someplace where he would be challenged to improve opportunities for low-income students and oversee a university system worthy of his own children. He established a catchphrase, one he already tucked into his bio on his new Twitter account: “The University of Nebraska needs to be a giant in higher education.”

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For Bounds’ first official piece of business as president-elect, he asked the student body president at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to arrange a meet-and-greet with campus leaders.

“I have read everything I can about your university,” Bounds told them, “but what I can’t read is what the student experience looks like.”

He held a Q&A in which he asked most of the questions. He sat at a table with a notebook and a pen.

Are you happy here? What makes UNL stand out?

Are you getting your money’s worth?

Christine Esukpa, a senior family science major and vice president of the Afrikan Peoples Union, said she was surprised how open he was. He even offered his cellphone number in case the students thought of anything later that he ought to know.

“It felt like he was campaigning,” Esukpa said, “but in a good way.”

He asked for a campus tour and fired questions to a handful of students about everything from new buildings to meal plans. Jeff Story, a senior from Omaha, said Bounds was clearly more interested in learning about their lives than talking about his own, as he familiarized himself with UNL.

“A lot of the questions he asked really didn’t pertain to his job at Varner Hall, but I think he really wanted to understand the climate at Nebraska and what it’s like to be a student here,” Story said.

Bounds’ second trip coincided with the university’s funding request before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee — a less disheartening environment than he is used to in a state that suffered the double hit of Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession.

While Nebraska’s economy and university suffered less than most of the nation, Mississippi took a far more devastating hit.

Mississippi’s state funding per student dropped about 25 percent over five years, although rising enrollment made that look worse than it was. Meanwhile, NU’s per-student state dollars rose about 1 percent. The university was given a 4.2 percent state increase to cover a two-year tuition freeze championed by then-Gov. Dave Heineman on top of a special appropriation of nearly $71 million for a host of health-related building projects.

At a hearing this month, current NU leaders defended a rise of more than 8 percent in their next two-year budget and other special spending projects that Bounds would be charged with overseeing. Some senators criticized the request as greedy. Bounds was watching the back-and-forth from the audience.

His staff is already planning a statewide tour for Bounds’ first week, and he’s visiting places that NU leaders haven’t been in an official capacity for a while. From day one he will be seeking to show his roots: his own schooling at a boarding high school that served as a working farm and his work experience in small towns facing extreme poverty.

He will go to the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis as well as to research facilities in the Panhandle. He will also visit community colleges and state colleges, hoping to strengthen the connection between the systems, and stop at high schools in some rural places not unlike the places he’s lived.

He wants to get to know about life outstate, he said, and tell all students about where an NU education could take them.

Contact the writer: 402-444-3185, kate.howard@owh.com, twitter.com/KateOWH

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