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IHL board rubber-stamps Delta State program cuts

The governing board of Mississippi’s eight public universities summarily approved a plan Thursday to resuscitate Delta State University’s ailing budget. 

The lengthy list of program deletions was among the first of 60 items on the consent agenda that were unanimously approved, with no comment or discussion during the board’s meeting.

The drastic restructuring, which was unveiled at a DSU town hall earlier this year, will result in the regional college in the Mississippi Delta shuttering its College of Arts and Sciences and eliminating 21 of its 61 programs, including degrees like history, English, chemistry and accountancy. 

The university has already cut more than 66 positions, and more cuts are coming. The Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees approved the deletion of the 21 degree programs — cuts estimated to affect 16 full-time positions across the departments of languages and literature, art, chemistry and music. 

Though an ad hoc committee of faculty, staff and administrators had input, the deep cuts are largely the priority of the president, Daniel Ennis, and the 12-member board that hired him. 

IHL board member Teresa Hubbard is a Delta State graduate. 

“As an alum, we always hate to see cuts happen,” she said. “But at the same time, I think it’s more of a repositioning and reappropriating of things to get them where they need to be.”

According to Hubbard, the board has provided mostly moral support for Ennis as he undertook the restructuring. 

“This board hired Dr. Ennis, and he is just an incredibly impressive man. And I think he’s on the right track,” she said. “He runs some things by us, but he puts so much thought and energy and effort into every decision that he makes that I just don’t think we could have done a better job, with the results that he’s showing.”

Delta State has struggled for years to keep its budget in the black as the tuition-dependent university in Cleveland contended with declining enrollment. In an effort to keep the university afloat, prior administrations also eliminated programs and positions.

Delta State University President Daniel J. Ennis, center, attends the Mississippi State Institutions of Higher Learning board meeting at the IHL headquarters in Jackson, Miss., on Thursday, June 20, 2024.
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Delta State University President Daniel J. Ennis, center, attends the Mississippi State Institutions of Higher Learning board meeting at the IHL headquarters in Jackson, Miss., on Thursday, June 20, 2024. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

In an interview with Mississippi Today, Ennis pointed to DSU’s Fiscal Year 2025 Operating Budget — also approved by IHL — as an indication that progress is already in motion. The university also received approval to spend as much as $618,976 over three years to enter into a contract with a consulting firm, Ruffalo Noel Levitz, to aid the university’s enrollment efforts — an issue Ennis says must be addressed in tandem with budgeting efforts. 

READ MORE: ‘At an uneasy town hall, Delta State’s president unveils ‘dramatic, upsetting’ restructuring’ 

The cuts come at a time when universities across the state are facing a declining population of prospective students. So far this year, universities or colleges nationwide have closed at a pace of one per week. This session, Mississippi lawmakers have taken aim at the state’s university system by proposing bills to shutter or merge some of the colleges. 

Hubbard, the only trustee on the board who graduated from Delta State, is part of a regional college working group that she says exists to give regional colleges a chance to meet and have a voice in addressing issues that impact them as a collective, to a lesser degree than they do the research universities. The group meets as needed, and recently met with Senate Colleges and Universities Committee Chair Nicole Akins Boyd, R-Oxford.

When asked why Delta State is important to Mississippi, Hubbard pointed to the school’s location in the Delta. 

“All the universities are important — I think the location of Delta State is important for a lot of reasons economically as well as educationally,” she said. “I think they have a goal to reach certain students and that’s very important. I just think the Delta is a very special place in our state that everyone should experience.”

In Cleveland, community members have generally applauded on social media the restructuring, while inside the university, the reaction has been more mixed

The board also approved a new mission statement for the university. It is short compared to the one that preceded it: The mission of Delta State University is to offer exceptional programs and opportunities that are current, innovative, and responsive to the diverse needs of those it serves. The University provides experiences that cultivate intellectual growth and individual enrichment to develop productive members of local, regional, and global communities. 

“The new mission statement is certainly part of our next steps,” Ennis said. “It’s not enough for a university to just survive — we have to set ourselves up for success.”

The newly approved cuts largely take aim at the university’s liberal arts programs. A ranking of programs favored degrees like nursing and teaching that are more directly connected to jobs in the state. The viability of programs was assessed based on standard metrics implemented during an academic review process.

“The public can be confident that exhaustive metrics were evaluated, with multiple reviews conducted by internal stakeholders throughout the process,” Christy Riddle, DSU’s chief marketing officer, said. “Program data was also sent to departments for review, and all feedback was considered as decisions were made. Ultimately, cost analysis was only responsible for 10% of the formula, whereas program enrollment, faculty-to-student ratio, and completion rates had heavier ratings. Profitability, even though a major concern, was not the primary metric used.”

Four new degree programs are being written to replace the eliminated programs. 

The United Campus Workers of Mississippi, a labor organization that is seeking to unionize higher education, put out a statement last month condemning the restructuring as part of a “larger and longer-planned attack on universities.”  

“Politicians rant about preparing students for a global workforce and cut funding so that schools have to increase their tuition, then treat it as a natural fact that students just aren’t enrolling in liberal arts courses that would enrich their educations but don’t have obvious employment tracks,” the statement reads

Half of Mississippi’s public universities take a larger share of their revenue from tuition than state dollars while, on average, it’s the opposite across the country, a Mississippi Today data analysis found

In Thursday’s meeting, IHL board member Gee Ogletree pointed out the drastic decrease in state appropriations to IHL over the past 25 years. 

“I’m grateful to the Legislature for their appropriations to us. They certainly allow all of our universities to be able to achieve their mission,” he said. “I just want to point out that part of our tuition increase is largely due to, over those years, to the fact that we do receive a smaller percentage [of funds].”

Higher Education reporter Molly Minta contributed to this report. 

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