The president of Tougaloo College, a private historically Black institution in north Jackson, is leaving at the end of this month amid growing unhappiness with her leadership, notching another name in the growing list of college presidents in Mississippi who have resigned or been fired in the last year.
In an email, Carmen Walters mainly touted her accomplishments since she took the reins as Tougaloo’s 14th president in July 2019, including doubling the college’s endowment. Before she was president of Tougaloo, Walters held multiple administrative positions at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
“Our beloved Eagle Queen is magnificent to behold,” Walters wrote. “Tougaloo has a rich history and a promising future. I will always reflect on my tenure at the College with pride and root for its continued success as a passionate supporter.”
A press release posted shortly after Walters’ message said Tougaloo’s Board of Trustees will conduct a national search and has named Donzell Lee, who was in leadership at Alcorn State University, to serve as president in the interim.
It’s unclear if Walters’ contract with Tougaloo is up or whether she is receiving a payout.
While it’s not known what, exactly, prompted Walters’ step-down, the board’s chair, Edmond Hughes, wrote “We, along with the entire Tougaloo College family, wish her well in her future endeavors.”
But students, faculty and alumni have been dissatisfied with her leadership for years. They ratcheted up pressure on the board to act. In 2022, students voted no-confidence in Walters’ leadership. A group called the Tougaloo College Alumni Coalition for Change created an online petition calling for Walters’ removal that garnered more than 1,500 signatures.
The petition claimed the college had been without a full-time registrar for years. Faculty were leaving in a “mass exodus” and enrollment had fallen to its lowest point in 40 years. Federal data shows this is true; 687 students were enrolled in fall 2021.
“There is discontentment among our ranks directly related to low student enrollment, a decrease in campus morale, horrid student living conditions, and questionable financial practices that have negatively impacted the college,” the petition said.
A press release from the coalition said it was “underwhelmed” by Walters’ removal and noted that alumni had opposed her candidacy from the start.
“Tougaloo College is a private college and airing grievances was frowned upon, but it was our clarion call that accentuated the need for change,” the coalition’s press release said. “Tougaloo College should have never been placed in this precarious dilemma.”
Walters’ email did not reference any of that, and in interviews in recent months, she had fought against the movement to remove her. In April, she told WJTV that she had “no intention” of stepping down. In early May, she called the claims “false” in an interview with the Clarion Ledger, noting that “every alum is not part of the Tougaloo Alumni Association.”
“That group is seeking my removal, but the Tougaloo Committee Board and the Alumni of Tougaloo College directly are not seeking my removal,” she told the newspaper.
But about a week later, her tune changed. In a statement to Inside Higher Ed, Walters said she was setting up meetings with alumni.
Walters’ step-down makes her the seventh college or university president in Mississippi to vacate the role in the last year. 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.
Now, half of the eight public universities have seen a president leave, as have Millsaps College in Jackson and Rust College in Holly Springs.
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.