The Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees has decided that Delta State University president William LaForge’s last day will be at the end of this month, marking a sudden end to a nine-year tenure that oversaw budget instability, some progressive initiatives at the university, and sharp declines in enrollment due to the pandemic.
Though the trustees made the decision at the board meeting last week, LaForge wrote in a lengthy campus-wide email that IHL did not tell him until “just prior” to sending out a press release Monday night.
“I am very disappointed in the decision, but I accept the outcome and am fully prepared to move on,” he wrote.
Through a university spokesperson, LaForge declined to talk with Mississippi Today, but he wrote in his email to the campus that the reason IHL gave for his departure was primarily financial.
“The very basic explanation I was provided was that the IHL Board thinks a leadership change is warranted because the comparative state of the university from the time when I began my service in 2013 until now is not favorable — especially with respect to enrollment metrics and financial sustainability,” LaForge wrote.
IHL did not provide its own reason for the move, and the trustees did not discuss the decision publicly at the board meeting last week. In IHL’s press release, Tom Duff, the board president, noted that “these are challenging times for higher education.”
The board also announced that it had named E.E. “Butch” Caston as an interim replacement. Caston has held multiple administrative positions at Delta State University and Mississippi University for Women.
“I appreciate Dr. Caston’s willingness to take on the role of interim president and feel certain that he will be able to address many of the issues facing Delta State at this time, including declining enrollment, fiscal challenges, and infrastructure,” Duff said.
LaForge will be the first university president to depart after IHL made its presidential search process more confidential through a series of policy changes earlier this year. In April, the board voted to make it so search committee members are anonymous, even to each other, and to decrease the role that campus advisory groups play in selecting the president.
Faculty are concerned these changes will make university presidents less accountable to students, faculty and staff.
LaForge came to the university in 2013 with no experience in higher education. He had primarily worked in politics as chief of staff for Sen. Thad Cochran and as a lobbyist, but he had also served as president Delta State’s alumni association.
“This is a career direction change for me,” LaForge said in 2013. “I have not been in higher education administration and I hope to be able to translate the skill sets I have.”
LaForge’s tenure has been marked by cyclical budget cuts. The first round came about a year after he took office. In fall 2014, the university announced about $1 million in cuts, eliminating a slew of academic programs and shuttering the print version of the campus newspaper. Twenty-four positions were terminated. Students and faculty held a mock funeral in protest, the Clarion Ledger reported.
The announcement came just a few months after the university announced a higher-than-anticipated fundraising haul.
Delta State has seen several progressive endeavors under LaForge. In 2014, the university won a national social justice award for its first “Winning the Race” conference which brought former Gov. William Winter and Rep. Bennie Thompson to campus. More recently, students and faculty held an on-campus screening of a documentary about the 1969 sit-in that led to police arresting dozens of Black students. More than 500 people attended.
Faculty led much of those initiatives, though, and the administration has been slow in other efforts. In late 2016, Delta State was the last public university in Mississippi to stop flying the state flag that contained the Confederate emblem.
“I wish to make it clear that this university is making an institutional decision on this issue because the state government has declined to change the flag,” LaForge said at the time. “This is a painful decision in many respects because this is a highly charged emotional issue for many people.”
More recently, many students, faculty and alumni have signed a petition calling on LaForge’s administration to rename the Walter Sillers Coliseum – the basketball arena named for the white supremacist founder of the Delta Council. The petition asked for the arena to be renamed in honor of Luisa “Lucy” Harris, the first Black woman on Delta State’s women’s basketball team who died earlier this year.
LaForge has not publicly commented on the petition. His wife, Nancy, spoke at Harris’ funeral, which was held in the Coliseum.
The university has struggled to weather the pandemic. Enrollment has dropped by 27% since fall 2019 – the largest drop of any school. In fall 2020, Delta State was the only university to raise tuition rates.
Earlier this year, LaForge’s administration was still concerned about the budget. Minutes from a February 2022 cabinet meeting show the executive committee “has been reviewing all potential budget savings and cuts; discussing ways to reimage (sic) core programs and growth areas; and, talking about ways to realign the budget to highlight the university’s priorities.”
At IHL’s meeting last week, the trustees were briefed on each university’s budget and finances. One of the budget documents that trustees reviewed showed that Delta State has just 40 days cash on hand, the lowest reserve in the system. Delta State is also the only university facing a negative return on total assets, which means it is losing money on investments.
In his campus-wide email, LaForge wrote that his family plans to return to northern Virginia. The appointment as university president was a homecoming for LaForge, who grew up in Cleveland, Miss., and attended Delta State as an undergrad. His father, a history professor at Delta State, is honored with a library on campus.
“I will be forever grateful to Delta State University for all it has given me in life,” LaForge wrote.
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