The Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees wants to hire a new president at Delta State University by summer 2023 or sooner.
The interim president, E.E. Butch Caston, who IHL appointed last July, had said he would stay in the position for a year. The 22-page profile recently finalized by Academic Search, the headhunting firm that IHL is contracting for the search, gives some clues to the type of president trustees want to take over after Caston.
While the regional college in Cleveland, a small town in the Mississippi Delta, is contending with plummeting enrollment and shaky finances — problems that are widespread in higher education — potential applicants do not need experience working in university administration, so long as they’re successful in their field and have a “deep knowledge” of higher education, according to the profile.
IHL prefers candidates with a terminal degree, but the profile does not say it is required.
The profile makes clear that despite the challenges facing Delta State, IHL wants candidates with ambition that match the university’s vision to become “the best regional university in America as it combines a heritage of academic strength with a robust commitment to serving people and communities, particularly in the Mississippi Delta.”
Delta State opened as a teachers college in 1924. The profile touts the university’s small student-to-teacher ratio; efforts to increase diversity, equity and inclusion like the annual “Winning the Race” conference; and its estimated $175 million annual economic impact on the Mississippi Delta.
The next president will be expected to increase enrollment, both graduate and undergraduate, and retention across all classes, according to the profile. This is a significant challenge, as Delta State has lost enrollment faster than any other public university in recent years. Headcount has dropped 29% percent since 2014, with just 2,556 students enrolled this year.
Another challenge that IHL wants the next president to tackle is growing the university’s annual fund and modest $30 million endowment by reaching out to alumni, community members and regional employers. State appropriations, once the school’s most significant source of funds, have plummeted in recent years.
Adjusted for inflation, Delta State receives less money from the state than it did in 2000. The university’s cash on hand was less than half of IHL’s recommended reserve of 90 days in 2020.
At Delta State, the enrollment and financial challenges are reciprocal. The lack of funding over the last decade has led the administration to slash scholarships and raise tuition and that in turn has made the university less affordable to students.
In 2014, tuition at Delta State cost $6,012 a year before room and board. This year, it’s up to $8,435, a quarter of the median household income in Bolivar County.
Most students receive Pell Grants — federal financial aid for students from low-income families — and are from Mississippi. Though the university has long, and still does, serve one of the highest percentages of Black students of any public university in the state, its demographics don’t line up with the Delta’s. In 2020, 33% of students at Delta State were Black and 55% were white, according to federal data — a near inversion of the demographics of Bolivar County, which is 65% Black and 33% white.
IHL wants the next president to “demonstrate a lived commitment” to diversity, equity and inclusion and to work well with faculty and staff by hewing to the “the principles of shared governance.”
On behalf of the board, Academic Search will take confidential applications until the position is filled but prefers candidates submit by January 31. Presidential searches are secret in Mississippi.
Candidates must submit a cover letter, a “written philosophy” of diversity, equity and inclusion, a resume and five professional references.
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.