CLEVELAND, MISS. — E.E. “Butch” Caston has come out of retirement twice in the last decade to work at Kent Wyatt Hall, the administration building at Delta State University.
The first time was in 2013 when Bill LaForge, then the university’s freshly inaugurated president, asked Caston, who had been a long-time administrator in the education college, to serve as interim vice president for academic affairs and provost. Two years later, Caston again returned as interim vice president for students affairs.
In a 2015 press release announcing Caston’s second return, LaForge called his “devotion and commitment” to Delta State University “legendary.”
On July 6, Caston un-retired once again, this time to lead Delta State as interim president after the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees announced LaForge’s sudden exit, citing the university’s plummeting enrollment and shaky financial position.
Caston will hold the position for a year as the IHL board undertakes a search process for the next permanent president, he told Mississippi Today. In that time, he said his highest priority is to bulk up enrollment and to identify goals the university can “reasonably accomplish.”
Caston sat down with Mississippi Today for a 35-minute interview on Wednesday to discuss his role as interim president, enrollment, town-gown relations and giving, and diversity, equity and inclusion. He was joined by Michelle Roberts, vice president executive affairs and chief of staff, and Brittany Davis-Green, director of communications.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Mississippi Today: I’m wondering if you could give us a sense of what the first five days on the job have consisted of for you — what your day-to-day looks like?
Butch Caston: The majority of my time has been spent meeting and listening and trying to absorb the state of the State, (the state) of the campus, and to get a feel for the leadership, some of whom I have not met, others with whom I’ve worked together for years, as a former employee here. So, that. (I’m) going through considerable materials. But my primary focus, in these first days, has been on connecting and establishing grounds for working relationships, and teaming … and also listening to community. Well wishers, (a) lot of well wishers. And people just expressing hope and support. I’ve gotten that from administration and staff who are here this summer, the 12-month employees. I’m eager for the faculty to get here next month, so that we can get on. A campus needs people. So I’m looking forward to that.
I know this campus, in that I was educated here myself. Undergraduate and a master’s. And then I returned in 1983 until ‘04, I was employed here as faculty and in administration. Then I came out of retirement three times in administrative VP positions. I did one VP at the W. In fact, that was my first out-of-retirement. I’ve enjoyed all of that. And I look forward to this.
MT: Can you talk a bit about what you see as the current state of the State? If you’ve identified priorities or goals for this interim period, and if you can talk a bit about how you arrive at priorities to focus on as the top-level administrator?
Caston: Sure, happy to talk about that. It’s (an) all-hands-on-deck kind of concept. It’s top-down, bottom-up. A lot of interaction. A lot of reordering, prioritizing – realistic prioritizing within a calendar period of time. What can we reasonably accomplish? There may be things that we want to do, and it may be a year three before we get there. So, first, identification, clear understanding, mutual acceptance of that understanding, and then prioritizing.
MT: Have you identified any of those clear goals yet?
Caston: No. Listening. A lot of listening, a lot of dialogue. When you meet with a body of half a dozen or more people, it takes time. The worst thing that can happen is for a group to feel pushed to get out the other side to get to a product. … If I were teaching a course in that aspect of administration, I would say never, ever force movement in the group. Move within the group, move with the group. So at this point, a lot of listening, a lot of restating what I think I’m hearing to get to a clear purging – everybody gets it out, whatever it is. And I can tell you, there are some outstanding people at the VP level here. And that’s who I’ve had available to me. And I’m very encouraged about that. I think my school is going to be fine.
MT: How will you be kind of communicating these priorities once you’ve identified them? What will the timeline for that look like? Like having a sense ready by fall semester?
Caston: I won’t predetermine that. We will move as forthrightly as we can, in a healthy way. I’m not going to drive people into the ground. There is structure, there’s some outstanding structure, and these people know their positions. It’s for me to guide. So, it’s not a one-man decision-making process. I’m a part of a group. It’s for me to create the atmosphere and the parameters for a scope of work. But these people have jobs. When they come and spend time with me, it needs to be concise, it needs to be definitive, and they need to get back to their primary responsibility.
So, you know, to say that we had a certain volume in terms of minutes of sessions, planning sessions. Phew. That, in itself, may be a terrible sign of leadership. So, an honest plan of communicating and relating, and everything, all of our efforts have to be pointed toward teaching and learning in the university. When the hard decisions come, I’ll follow the advice of my single greatest mentor, who was Dr. Kent Wyatt, former president here. He has always advocated, during the years I served with him, (that) for the hard decisions, where consensus was so hard, the guiding light was (to) do what’s best for the university. And I live that. I believe that.
MT: One of the biggest issues that is on everyone’s mind is the enrollment decline that Delta State has experienced during the pandemic. (Editor’s note: Enrollment has dropped by 27% since fall 2019 at Delta State – the largest drop of any public university in the state.) It seems like the enrollment issue facing the university is multifaceted and not necessarily just due to the pandemic. There are factors like the declining population of the Delta, other universities in the state having more resources and more reputable academic programs.
Do you have thoughts on why the university is seeing this enrollment decline, and what you think the university can do to improve the numbers?
Caston: Well, the last part of your question is my number one. What can we do? Enrollment is down. Population is down. Enrollment is the number one topic of mine. It will be the number one topic throughout my service time here. I am committed to a year of interim, during which time the board will meet its responsibilities of a search and a selection process. During that time, we will continue what has begun with our VP for student affairs, and our provost and VP for academic affairs. Those two gentlemen, who are relatively new here, they have an outstanding action plan that has us very excited. We will know on the 15th what our numbers are. I don’t want to jump the gun and step out there with a number. But I can tell you, the indicators are that we’re going to have a really nice size new student registration and enrollment –
MT: For the fall?
Caston: For the fall, yes. And we’ll see what that figure actually is. But I’m speaking of applications, people who are in the full process of being selected.
MT: What does that action plan entail?
Caston: In terms of recruitment?
Caston: Oh. Of course, incoming, who are then housed here. Recruiters working contacts, using technology, using relationships, as well as out there in the field. But it’s pretty much done now. We’re right at registration, we’ll still have some – at the time of on-campus, when the campus opens, we’ll still have people coming in to register. So that number, it’s kind of like Christmas, you know. We’re just excited for it to get here. We’re not quite sure what it’s going to hold for us. But our indications, the indications are good.
MT: What happens if the university doesn’t improve its enrollment numbers?
Caston: Well, the work is ongoing. We will not give in. We’re here for the long haul. Delta State has enjoyed a wonderful reputation for years. And we’ll take recruitment as far out from campus as we need to go for us to have our coffers filled. So that would be the plan. The old football coach would say, ‘Huddle up, next play.’ You know?
MT: What is Delta State’s responsibility to the community here? What is its place? What role should Delta State play in the Delta and in Mississippi?
Caston: Delta State is a part of Cleveland, and Cleveland is a part of Delta State. One of the things that I just thoroughly enjoyed as a student, and later as an employee, (is) the closeness, the closeness. That has to be one of my priorities.
When I first came back here, almost 20 years after I left – at the time that I left, I was a high school teacher and coach. To come back and see some of my former students now adults, parents, and to see their kids enrolling? There is a strong, strong historical connect. Often it’s been stated, no IHL in Mississippi has a better town-gown than Cleveland and Delta State. Have you ever heard that?
MT: I have not.
Caston: You have not?
MT: I would love to know more about why that’s something people say.
Caston: Because they love their school. Support – mutual support. City government leaders and administration and faculty? Close, close, close. I see one of my former students here nodding. (Editor’s note: Caston was referring to Davis-Green, Delta State’s director of communication, who sat in on the interview.) It’s the way it is.
I came here from Baton Rouge when I was 18. And when I pulled – my parents drove me – we pulled up to the Coliseum … I thought, ‘Where in the world am I?’ That was in 1963. And six months later, I would have died for the place. I just felt embraced when I first got here, and it’s been that way for me.
You know, for a lot of young people who’ve had limited experiences given their station in life, their geography – nurturing is a big factor. When you just hear a student, standing at the elevator, and saying to another student, you know, ‘We didn’t have an elevator in my town.’ That’s – you just think about the adjustment, the challenge of the adjustment. This faculty – I’ve seen it, every time I’ve come out of retirement, I’ve found the same thing. That nurturing – kind of, come on, we can do it. I’ve had professors to say, ‘I can promise you, you will be successful if you come to class, and participate. If you don’t come, I’m not gonna worry about you. If you come, I’ll be here. And I’m gonna see that you get it done.’ Now that’s, that’s nurturing to me.
MT: You referenced town-gown relations. Another thing I’ve been seeing is that private donations and town-gown relations seem closely tied at Delta State. Can you talk about what kind of relationship you see yourself forging with local businesses and local donors?
Caston: I think it’s not an at-the-podium concept – me standing before. Me and others at the table. In the homes and at functions. People visiting the campus and feeling the atmosphere and the environment, and also seeing the need. I think people who see the need – you know, we see terrible things happen in a country. And all of a sudden there’s an outpouring of millions of dollars, you know, people, unsolicited, contributing to a terrible tragedy. I’m not saying there’s a tragedy, but I’m saying need. Need gets response from a caring community. I’m not worried about that up here.
MT: What is the need that you would like for the community to see?
Caston: Funds to meet student needs. Teaching and learning. Every nickel we spend, it should track to teaching and learning. I think we can do that. At first blush, you might think, well how in the world can you say such and such connects to teaching and learning? Well, the guy on the weed eater out here on the back forty? That contributes to teaching and learning. We have a pretty campus. Somebody’s got to keep that. It’ll go to seed quickly. Facilities. We have some old buildings, worrisome buildings, you know? And we’re going to have to make some hard decisions in that regard.
I don’t mind hard decisions. I want healthy contribution to get to the decision.
MT: I was looking back through the Delta State College Foundation 990s to get a sense of private giving. It looks like it’s never stayed at one consistent level. It’s jumped around from about $2 million to $6 million, then back to $2 million. But it looks like from 2018 to 2019, it (contributions) took a big tumble. I was wondering if private donations are down to the university? And if you can talk a little more about how that affects the university’s budget?
Caston: I haven’t gotten into it yet, so I really can’t. I can say that I believe it reflects the economy. Donors invest money. And it’s from earnings from their investments that they contribute to places like here. So it stands if they have $50 million, and they’re losing money this quarter, then we are too. It reflects the larger system.
MT: Every few years, it seems like the legislature cuts more money from the university budget–
Caston: Cuts more money?
MT: Mhm. And the whole IHL system. I’m wondering, without better public funding, what can the university do to address the issues caused by state budget cuts?
Caston: This school has gotten more out of the dollar. I can tell you, people talk about institutions and they have a lot of fat in their budget. Delta State has never enjoyed fat. We’ve never claimed to be fat.
Now, it has been said before at the state level. The best fiscally managed institution is Delta State. It gets more done with less money. But here’s where that bites. A small institution like this, that operates on a very lean budget. If you’re in the budget year – you know what I’m gonna say? Cuts. Appropriations are cut mid-year? We don’t have any fat, right?
MT: There’s nothing to lean on?
Caston: That’s right. That’s right. So you know, what’s the hope there? Please don’t cut during the fiscal year. We’ll deal with it. End of fiscal year, start of next year. That’s where very careful planning and scrutiny and evaluation of finances and personnel. Biggest part of the budget is people. And we’ve got to help people. We’ve been lucky to have good people.
I have known people – employees, faculty, I’ve done it myself – turn down much higher paying jobs. You know why? Happy, they’re happy where they are. I’m happy here. I wouldn’t go out of state. I’m already past that. I’m an old man.
MT: I want to move to asking a bit about faculty. There was a recent PEER report that looked at tenured positions at the IHL schools, and Delta State was the only university to not hire a tenured professor in the last three years. (Editor’s note: The PEER report shows that Delta State actually has not directly hired a tenure professor from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2021, a five-year period.) From (fiscal year) 2019 to 2021, the university lost 13 tenure-track faculty, which is the largest loss among the regional colleges in Mississippi.
What effect does faculty retention have on the university? And how will you work to make Delta State a place where faculty want to stay for a long time?
Caston: I don’t think it’s a matter of wanting or not wanting to stay. I think it’s a matter of providing for one’s family. When I came here as a student, the overwhelming majority of the faculty were from in state. Through the decades and years, that has become far, far more global. Not only within the US, but certainly outside of Mississippi. In that regard, I think for a large number of reasons that don’t reflect necessarily on Delta State, we see a more fluid population. And the saving grace is the environment here, the nurturing of one another, and we do grow our own to some degree. I’m a product.
When I lived in Mississippi, but in South Mississippi, I had people come to my home, friends of mine, tearful that I was making a terrible mistake to leave one place and move back to Cleveland. And they said, well, ‘How do you explain, help me understand?’ My answer, and I remember it clearly, that was years ago that happened – (was) ‘You would have to have lived there and did your college degree, work there, to understand.’ So I didn’t want, there wasn’t any way – they were convinced that I was making a mistake. I knew what I was going to. I said, ‘I know exactly where I’m going. And I’m going there because I want to go there.’ And I honestly feel–
MT: When was that?
Caston: That was, give me a second here. ‘83. 1983.
MT: Diversity, equity, inclusion efforts are really important to many on campus. Specifically, I’m thinking of the Winning the Race conference. And I’m wondering, how will you help these efforts grow?
Caston: Well, that will be one of my questions to the appropriate audience here. And with input from the community, the – actually, my sense of that, I have some limited knowledge in that regard. The numbers are down in terms of participants, especially outside of the campus. The highest percentage of participation, I believe, would come from faculty and staff on campus–
MT: For the Winning the Race conference?
Caston: Yeah, for Winning the Race.
And my experience through the years on initiatives like that. You reload, revise, sometimes you discontinue, you know? If there’s a need, and there’s an audience, there has to be a reason why there isn’t an audience and so that you explore that carefully, and you come with a revised edition, whatever that might be. So that’ll be something of interest to look – at all those types of social topics, if you will.
MT: What does looking at them entail?
Caston: Well, I think your key participants on campus, organizers, planners, leaders – and invited attendees. I think you go to the table with it and look at what you have. How – if we’re, if our attendance is waning, can we determine why? And we probe. And we’re influenced by what we find. And so we come out the other side with continuation of what we had, revise what we had, it could even be discontinued, renamed, you know, refitted. So.
MT: What are the numbers on the conference?
Caston: I couldn’t tell you, but it’s available if you need that information. I think we can get that for you.
MT: A lot of faculty and community members have pushed to have the Walter Sillers Coliseum renamed in Lusia Harris’s honor, and I know that the university was discussing ways to commemorate her. I was wondering if you could speak to that.
Caston: I have some awareness about that, having been a student athlete here. But I was away during that period when she played. But I met her. I’m fully aware of who she is, I’m fully aware who Margaret Wade is. I was close to her during my years as a student. You know, Margaret Wade’s – the Wade trophy is the female version of the Heisman trophy for men in football.
The matter of naming is a very structured – you’re familiar with that? It’s very structured by the state of Mississippi. And so Delta State may suggest, may recommend but it’s – that is determined at state level, has to flow through the college board, so there are options on recognizing excellence. I think we look at all our options. If one door closes, try to find another door to open kind-of-thing.
MT: We’re entering the sixth wave of COVID. I know that the university has relaxed its COVID policies as have pretty much every IHL school. What are you doing to mitigate the effects of the next wave of the pandemic?
Caston: Continue what we’re doing. Good health practices, early intervention. And I would add, reasonable intervention, and stay the course. And don’t panic. And have faith we’re gonna feel the sun.
MT: What does that look like specifically, do you have that sorted out yet?
Caston: It hasn’t been a topic in my first five days. I can tell you that. Because the university has an established, adopted plan, and it follows it carefully.
MT: Faculty are always really curious about IHL’s personnel decisions – not just faculty, but anyone who watches the IHL board closely. I’m wondering if you can sort of walk us through how you came into this job, and why you decided to take this role now.
Caston: I was contacted by the IHL Commissioner. And he communicated to me the desire for the board to invite me to serve as interim until a search could be conducted and a permanent president be named. I agreed to do that. That’s exactly how it happened.
MT: When did they reach out to you?
Caston: I won’t be able to recall the exact date. It was, at the time that – it was right at the time that they made the announcement. It was like one day to the next. It was pretty tight.
MT: Is there something, a question I haven’t brought up that you want to talk about, or something you want to use this interview to communicate to the people who are going to read it?
MT: Well, that’s everything.
Caston: Sure, okay. Suits me. Suits me. Come visit.
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.