The wave of presidential turnover at Mississippi’s institutions of higher learning has come to Rust College.
The state’s oldest historically Black college in Holly Springs announced in a press release Wednesday that Ivy Taylor, who was appointed in June 2020, has left. Though Taylor gave an interview to a local paper last week announcing she was leaving, it’s unclear if she stepped down or was fired; the press release does not say. Her last day was May 6.
In Taylor’s place, the private college’s board of trustees named Robert Dixon, the interim vice president for academic affairs, as interim president. He is a physicist who has worked at six historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the last five decades in various administrative roles.
“I am proud to lend my talents and expertise to such a historic and prestigious institution such as Rust College,” he said in the release. “I look forward to following in the traditions of past exceptional leaders who have served this institution during its 157 years.”
It’s unclear if, or when, the college’s board will undertake a search for a new permanent president.
The announcement makes Taylor the latest president of a Mississippi college or university to leave under mysterious circumstances. The trend began last summer when the governing board for the state’s eight public universities suddenly announced it had let go William LaForge, who had served as the president of Delta State University in Cleveland for nine years.
Rodney Bennett, the former president of University of Southern Mississippi, stepped down soon after. Then earlier this year, the Institutions for Higher Learning Board of Trustees placed Thomas Hudson at Jackson State University on administrative leave, then let him go.
More recently, the board announced that Felecia Nave was no longer Alcorn State University’s president days after she interviewed for the chancellor position at Louisiana State University in Shreveport.
The IHL board has refrained from providing the community with more information about the “personnel issues.” In Nave’s case, the board even refused to answer questions from Mississippi Today about if the change was a resignation or firing. In general, the only additional details about the board’s decision have come from the president’s themselves.
Other universities that haven’t seen presidential turnover have faced discontent from students, faculty and alumni. At the end of last year, a change.org petition circulated at Mississippi Valley State University calling on the IHL board to fire Jerryl Briggs, the president, due to enrollment decline, issues with financial aid and “lack of leadership.” Then Briggs’ supporters created a counter-petition.
At Tougaloo College, alumni have also created a change.org petition asking the board and Carmen Walters, the president, to acknowledge the enrollment declines and low morale on campus. The petition claims that Tougaloo’s leadership has withheld critical information such as budgets and grant funding.
The Rust College board hired Taylor, the college’s first female president, after an eight-month search and reportedly interviewing more than 70 candidates. A former mayor of Holly Springs said the board focused on finding a president who would prioritize technological investments that could improve the infrastructure and education at Rust College, which was founded in 1866.
The hope was that through modernization, Taylor could bring more students to Rust College — or at least, stave off a sharp enrollment decline during the pandemic.
“Dr. Taylor brings energy, intelligence, and competence as well as experience in listening to diverse views and building coalitions,” said the board chair, David Swinton, said in a press release at the time.
When Taylor arrived on campus, she was met with controversy around some of the on-campus housing conditions. In at least one dorm, the college was reportedly bunking four students to a room, the Tri-State Defender reported.
In an interview last week, with the local paper in Marshall County, Taylor touched on the enrollment decline and said it was a trend that began before her term. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Rust College’s enrollment since 2016 has plummeted by more than half to just 462 students in 2021.
“Enrollment had been declining at Rust College for several years when I arrived and the pandemic exacerbated the scenario,” Taylor said.
Taylor also said she experienced high turnover in leadership turning her time at Rust College, which she attributed to the small, rural nature of Holly Springs, the state of public education in the area, and “the overall ‘Great Resignation’ trend occurring in other sectors.”
She ended the interview saying that she does not yet have plans for a new job and is using the time off to rest.
Editor’s note: Ivy Taylor is a member of Mississippi Today’s board of directors.
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.