Ben Burnett will be the next president of William Carey University following the retirement of longtime WCU President Tommy King.
Burnett will assume his new duties as the university’s 10th president Aug. 16.
“The Board of Trustees is very thankful for Dr. King’s long and successful tenure, and we are extremely pleased that the Lord very clearly led to the selection of Dr. Ben Burnett as his successor. We look forward to working with Dr. Burnett — as always, expecting great things from God and attempting great things for God,” said Jimmy Stewart, chair of the WCU board of trustees.
Burnett began his career in education in 1986 as assistant band director for Meridian High School. In 1988, he returned to Lamar County to become band director at his alma mater, Oak Grove High School. Burnett’s Oak Grove band consistently rated superior and grew from 50 members to more than 220.
Burnett served as president of the Mississippi Bandmasters. He was the recipient of the A.E. McClain Outstanding Young Band Director award. In 2013, he was inducted to the Southeast Mississippi Band Directors’ Association Hall of Fame.
In 1997, Burnett moved into administration as principal of Oak Grove Middle School, a post he held for 10 years. During this time, he was president of the Mississippi Association of Middle Level Education and Mississippi’s Middle School Principal of the Year.
In August 2007, Burnett was elected superintendent of the Lamar County School District and was reelected in 2011. During his tenure, Lamar County Schools moved to being rated an “A” school district by the Mississippi Department of Education. The district also received many state and federal grants in the areas of early childhood, school safety, dyslexia training and after-school tutoring.
Burnett retired from public education in June 2014 and accepted the position of dean of the William Carey University School of Education — which has an enrollment of 1,800 undergraduate and graduate-level education majors. In April 2020, he was named executive vice president of William Carey University.
Burnett succeeds King, who became president of William Carey University in 2007 — but his service to WCU goes back six decades. He is a WCU alumnus, a campus leader during his student days and the first Carey graduate to become president of the university. Before ascending to the presidency, he served as a WCU trustee, adjunct professor, department chair, and executive vice president.
King became president in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed WCU’s first Gulf Coast campus. King chose the location and directed the construction of the Tradition campus. At the same time, WCU applied to open the WCU College of Osteopathic Medicine, which admitted its first class in 2010 at the Hattiesburg campus.
In January 2017, an EF3 tornado inflicted catastrophic damage to the Hattiesburg campus. Only one building was left unscathed. Six buildings were destroyed outright or damaged so badly they had to be demolished, including the original Tatum Court. King led the rebuilding effort and cut the ribbon on the final tornado recovery project, new Tatum Court, in July 2019.
King was instrumental in establishing the School of Pharmacy at the Tradition campus, a physical therapy doctoral program in Hattiesburg, and a new nursing school in Baton Rouge. He also led the way to the construction of a new 67,000-square-foot facility for the College of Health Sciences — the largest complex WCU has ever built. The most recent ribbon-cutting was for the King Student Center, named in honor of Dr. King and his wife, Sandra.
Finally, during his tenure as president, King oversaw unprecedented growth in enrollment. The number of students has more than doubled, from 2,500 to more than 5,200. During the same time, the number of residential students in Hattiesburg has increased fourfold and six new dorms have been opened.
Stewart said King’s leadership and accomplishments leave an indelible mark on the culture and success of the university.
“We are elated to be making this announcement. After a seven-month search and interview process, we are very pleased to find our new president right here on campus. Dr. Burnett has an exciting vision for William Carey and a clear understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing higher education,” said Odean Busby, chairman of the WCU presidential search committee.
A public reception honoring King and his wife Sandra, also a graduate of William Carey University, will be held in the King Student Center on July 28, from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Inauguration ceremonies for Burnett are being planned for later this fall.
William Carey University is a private Christian liberal arts college in Mississippi, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and the Mississippi Baptist Convention.