CLEVELAND – Delta State University students, faculty and alumni welcomed their new president, Daniel Ennis, on Thursday with a procession of plastic-wrapped gift baskets, a notebook signed by faculty members, local pottery and a golden key to the city, an honor that the mayor noted had been bestowed just twice before to B.B. King and John Lennon’s half sister.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Ennis said when he took the podium at E.R. Jobe Hall.
In return, Ennis, who was named Delta State’s ninth president last month, tried to show his gratitude to the community and his future bosses, the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees, with an at-times quippy speech focused on the university’s history.
“Why all this history from a man who can make no claim to live any of it,” he said. “I am keenly aware that your eyes are upon me. I feel the gaze of those multitude past and present who have studied at, worked for, and cared about Delta State since its founding.”
Ennis read stanzas from a poem about the university written by William Zeigel, the college’s first academic dean; acknowledged a 1969 sit-in by Black students that pushed the university to teach Black history; and told the story of the hardworking, retired bookstore manager.
“This is not the occasion to describe the things I have been hired to do,” he said, adding that, “at a later time, after consultation with so very many stakeholders, I will tackle what is to be done and explain how we will do it. But today, I feel the need to rise to this historic occasion, I want to say something that is worthy of all of your attention.”
A daunting task awaits Ennis when he assumes the ninth presidency of Delta State on July 1. He will be expected to fix the yearslong downturn in enrollment at the regional college in the Mississippi Delta – a problem his predecessor, William LaForge, was let go for not being able to solve. In the last eight years, enrollment has plummeted at Delta State faster than at any other public university in Mississippi. Headcount has dropped 29% percent since 2014, with just 2,556 students enrolled this school year.
Backstage after his introduction, Ennis told reporters that improving enrollment is “job one.” It was a “big part” of his interview with trustees, but Ennis wasn’t able to talk details yet, saying he needed to speak more with university officials.
Trustees “haven’t given me specific benchmarks,” he said. “But there is no problem at Delta State that can’t be solved by enrollment improvement. Everything we want to do here, whether it’s hire faculty, buy new equipment – all the things we want to do at the institution depends upon enrollment being healthy.”
One idea Ennis did share is that he hopes to use the university’s upcoming 100th anniversary as a fundraising opportunity.
“Institutions that are keen to market themselves, differentiate themselves in the world of higher education and are aggressive in their recruitment will be fine,” he said. “Delta State has so much to offer, there’s no reason there should be an enrollment crisis.”
IHL officials have cited Ennis’s track record of increasing enrollment at Coastal Carolina University, where he is currently the provost and executive vice president, a position he worked up to after starting there as an assistant professor of English in 1999. He was a first-generation college student.
In a speech introducing Ennis, Teresa Hubbard, an IHL trustee and Delta State alumnus who oversaw the presidential search, thanked E.E. Butch Caston, the current interim president, for his “legacy of service and dedication” to the university.
“We expect to see you on campus still,” she said, prompting chuckles from the audience.
She touched on Ennis’s credentials, including his doctorate from Auburn University (“we’re going to forgive him for that,” she joked) and status as a Fulbright specialist. She noted that Ennis was a first-generation college student and read a line from Ennis’s application.
“I am seeking the presidency of an institution that embodies the values that have actuated my career,” she read. “Making higher education available, affordable and achievable for my fellow citizens is my highest calling. I can picture myself at Delta State University, a tough and nimble university that punches above its weight and has a remarkable history. I can learn from you, advocate for you and would give my all to our shared mission.”
Ennis was among 59 applicants for the job and one of just two finalists, according to an IHL spokesperson. Ennis said he applied for the position after seeing the job posting on the website for Academic Search, the headhunting firm that IHL hired to assist in the search. He’ll be making $320,000, an increase on Caston’s salary.
“It hadn’t occurred to me until recently that I should be a president,” Ennis said.
A tenured English professor, Ennis said that one topic that did not come up in his interviews with IHL was tenure, the job protections that are a hallmark of higher education in the U.S.. In 2011, Ennis penned an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the decline in tenure and tenure-track positions, arguing that “tenure’s fate has already been determined. It will be killed not by irresponsible academics or the barbs of the commentariat, but instead by the tightening grip of the American economy.”
Now that he is in a position to grant or deny tenure to faculty at Delta State, Ennis said that he will continue to defend the institution, which he noted is often “misunderstood.”
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.