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Delta State president affirms inclusivity but says interim band director who mocked trans people will keep his job, emails show

Delta State University’s new president, Daniel J. Ennis, chats with former interim president E.E. Caston at E.R. Jobe Hall on the Cleveland campus, where he was introduced to students and faculty, Thursday, April 6, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The new president of Delta State University, Daniel Ennis, wrote in a campus-wide email Thursday that Steven Hugley, the recently hired interim band director who mocked women and trans people on his now-deleted podcast, will remain in his position. 

Ennis wrote in the 6:11 p.m. email that the U.S. Constitution protects free speech and, in a separate email to marching band students, that the university’s “guiding principles” did not allow him to discipline an employee for private comments he had made before he was hired. 

“I acknowledge that this response, which does not include an announcement of a personnel action, will be viewed as insufficient by some and appropriate by others,” he wrote to the campus. “I would not be worthy of my office if I didn’t accept that free expression at Delta State University means I am subject to your assessment and criticism.” 

Ennis, who took his post earlier this summer, had faced calls from students, faculty and alumni to rescind Hugley’s hiring following an article in Mississippi Today that detailed some of the comments Hugley had made as the co-host of the podcast, “Always Right.” 

Those included gagging at a photo of a trans woman, repeatedly misgendering notable trans people and calling for transitioning — the process of changing one’s physical appearance to align with their gender identity — to be made illegal for trans adults. In Mississippi, lawmakers earlier this year banned gender-affirming care that results in trans minors medically transitioning. 

“If you do, not only are we gonna lock you up, we’re also gonna lock up the doctor,” Hugley said in reference to parents who seek gender-affirming care for trans kids, “and then we take it the next step.” 

Though Hugley will keep his position, Ennis’s campus-wide email also contained an elaborate reminder that employees who “choose” to work at Delta State had agreed to participate in an inclusive environment that was free from discrimination or harassment and committed to nurturing students. The word “choose,” repeated four times, hyperlinked to the university’s webpages for diversity, equity and inclusion, and Title IX. 

“Even the most diehard defenders of free speech concede that organizations and institutions can set professional standards,” he wrote. 

To that end, Ennis added that Delta State “is no place for contempt.” 

“I value behaviors, activities and ideas that support the recruitment, retention and graduation of students,” he wrote. “Conversely, I take a dim view of that which drives students away from this wonderful place.”

In the separate email to marching band students, Ennis wrote that his decision was based on “the range of viewpoints expressed” at his meeting with them last week, though most students who spoke were opposed to Hugley’s hiring. 

He also wrote that while he knew his decision not to remove Hugley “might cause some discomfort for certain students,” he promised to “be diligent in working to create a climate where all DSU students, employees, and constituents are valued and nurtured.” 

If at any time a student felt singled out due to their identity, he wrote that they should notify the music department chair, Julia Thorn, the dean of the college of arts and sciences, or the vice president for student affairs. 

“They stand ready to listen and to provide guidance,” he wrote. 

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

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