CLEVELAND — Last summer, record-sized hail caused millions of dollars in roof damage across Delta State University’s aging campus. 

Had school been in session, the regional college in the Mississippi Delta would not have had enough cash to recover and stay open, Daniel Ennis, the president, told a packed room of students, faculty, staff and community members on Monday. 

“That’s frightening,” he said. “That’s like running a family and having no money if you blow out a tire, no money if your car breaks down.” 

The stark anecdote underscored the reason for the gathering: 49 vacant positions will be left unfilled, 17 staff have been laid off and an unknown number of faculty will be next as Delta State has proposed cutting 21 of its 61 programs — degrees like history, English, chemistry and accountancy— as part of a drastic restructuring. The program closures will be presented to the university’s governing board, the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees. 

“It’s dramatic, upsetting, and I get this is shocking to many,” said Ennis, who added that there are only 238 students in those 21 programs. “So you can do the math.” 

The College of Arts and Sciences will be eliminated; its remaining programs will be doled out among the still-surviving colleges. Other changes are underway: Library Services has been restructured, the Career Services, Housing and Student Life offices consolidated, and the Hamilton-White Child Development Center will be shuttered unless a committee can write a financially sustainable plan for it this summer. 

The goal is not just to save money but to direct the university’s funds into self-sustaining initiatives, an approach Ennis outlined in a memo that many were still digesting by the time the information-packed town hall began. 

Delta State University’s new president Dr. Daniel J. Ennis, speaks with students and staff at E.R. Jobe Hall on Delta State’s campus, where he was introduced to students and faculty, Thursday, April 6, 2023.

“If we fail to do these things, we’re just running hand to mouth, year after year, crisis after crisis,” Ennis said. “It ends today.”  

There was one piece of good news: State appropriations for the university have increased by about $1.4 million, Ennis told the room, though he isn’t sure yet if the funds are flexible or must be spent on salaries. 

After the meeting, the university’s chief marketing officer and vice president for university relations told a Mississippi Today reporter they could provide answers to questions such as from which low-enrolled departments instructors were laid off. On Tuesday, they said it would be a personnel matter and directed Mississippi Today to submit a records request instead.

In an interview, Ennis said he envisioned renaming the two remaining colleges, potentially one could be called the “College of Humanities.” But, he acknowledged, a majority of the programs on the chopping block are traditional liberal arts degrees — the result, he said, of students voting with their feet. 

“The productivity standards that I need to meet through IHL were far more important than statements made about workforce development,” Ennis said. “But I do think indirectly, in the big picture — I’ve been in the humanities my whole career — a generation of students have been told to go to college and get a job, and that makes things like art and music and English and history a harder sell to parents. I regret that.” 

In lieu of the 21 programs, Ennis is proposing four new interdisciplinary degrees: Visual and performing arts, humanities and social science, digital media and secondary education. The university will encourage students with less than 60 credit hours in a degree that will be cut to enroll in one of these four programs, Ennis said. 

Students with more than 60 credit hours will still be able to graduate with their degree, even if it is going to be cut. 

That is why Ennis can’t yet say the number of faculty who will be terminated. Some will be needed for “teach-outs” — the plans for the students with more than 60 credit hours. Others will stay on to teach general education. And, Ennis said, the budget for the four new degree programs, which will be created over the summer, hasn’t been set. He hopes to have the programs up and running by the fall. 

But, Ennis still needs to find $750,000 to cut in fiscal years 2026 and 2027 — an indication, he said, of the number of faculty that may need to go. 

A room divided

The meeting Monday was the culmination of nearly a year of work, Ennis told the room. In September, he announced that Delta State must cut $11 million from its budget, a glut that resulted from years of deficit spending as the college’s enrollment steadily dwindled

When Ennis got to Cleveland, he said, Delta State had depleted its cash reserves to just 24 days. 

“Just like a household that has a savings account, and one year you have a loss of income and you start spending out of your savings accounts, the challenge I faced was when I arrived here, there was no more savings account,” Ennis said. 

For fiscal year 2024, the university is projected to have clawed its way to 29 days cash-on-hand, according to a powerpoint Ennis presented. But it has a long way to go before it finds the $12 million needed to achieve the minimum 90 days required by IHL — a task made all the more difficult by the financial headwinds facing higher education. 

“You feel like you’re on a treadmill,” Ennis said. “You save $1 million, but two years later the actual (amount) is $750,000” because of inflation.

At times, the town hall was tense and divided. When it came time for questions, some speakers commended Ennis, while others were more critical. 

Jamie Dahman Credit: Courtesy of Delta State University

After Jamie Dahman, a music professor, protested Ennis’ proposed changes to the marching band, a police officer walked over to Dahman, leading Ennis to tell the officer “we don’t need that.” Earlier, Dahman had asked why the university and the foundation had paid hundreds of thousands for a search firm to help with replacing the dean of the arts and sciences college when, it turns out, that college is just going to be eliminated. 

Christy Riddle, Delta State’s chief marketing officer, said she could not answer by press time how many university funds were used for the search. 

That decision had only happened a few days ago, Ennis replied. The search to replace Ellen Green, who was the subject of a faculty senate no-confidence vote last year, was canceled earlier this month.

“It was a late call, because this process was ongoing until, frankly, 10 p.m. last night,” Ennis said. 

A recent graduate, Anna Schmitz, read a letter to Ennis, describing what she called unacceptable conduct by his administration, such as an instructor who learned they were out of a job earlier this year with a letter “silently and unexpectedly slid under the door of their office.” Four other instructors across multiple departments also did not have their contracts renewed. 

“As of late, it seems that students have no choice but to blindly take out thousands of dollars in loans not knowing if their major will even exist next semester, and faculty members are constantly unable to confirm if they will even hold a position for the next school year,” Schmitz read. 

Ennis’s initial response was short. 

“It pains me that I have disappointed you and your fellow students,” he said, adding her statement was courageous before concluding, “we don’t agree on many things, and I will take your comments to heart.” 

“What’s the answer?” Someone demanded from the left side of the room, as others hesitantly clapped in support. “No response to the student?”

“Well, okay, first response,” Ennis said. “Every effort was made to personally tell individuals about their job change. … I can’t speak to that individual faculty status. … I wish that we could’ve done this gradually, but point of fact, when you talk about people’s jobs, you shouldn’t do it piecemeal. I chose to give all the information today, so everybody got the maximum information as simultaneously as possible. Any other method would’ve disadvantaged someone.” 

When he finished, the middle section of the room broke into applause. 

‘None of us were prepared for this’

Toward the end of the town hall, someone asked Ennis about the elephant in the room: What was the IHL’s role in all this? 

Ennis answered that IHL had charged him with fixing the university’s budget when he was hired, but that wasn’t the whole picture. 

“I appreciate you letting me put that out there as if IHL is the ‘big bad,’” he said. “I’m owning this.” 

But, Ennis also noted repeatedly throughout the town hall that he had help. An ad hoc committee of faculty, staff and administration has been meeting since last fall. It made several recommendations, spanning broad ideas such as “restructuring the Academy” to specific suggestions, like cutting $750,000 from executive and administrative salaries over two years, and adjusting the athletic department’s budget by $350,000. 

Ennis said he took all of the committee’s recommendations into account. 

The committee also proposed a retirement incentive program, which IHL approved, to save as much on salaries as possible without layoffs. Just 16 of 53 people who were eligible took the offer — less than Ennis had hoped, he said. 

With all these cuts, one attendee asked how will Delta State ensure the quality of its remaining course offerings? 

“That’s a great question,” Ennis responded. “This is what I want to get to. We have not been able to resource the areas that are healthy in enrollment because we’ve been minimally resourcing all areas. We’re freeing up resources that we can put toward places where they’re going to be the most good.” 

To determine which programs would likely survive, the university conducted an academic program review. A spreadsheet ranks all departments — the ones with the lowest score were asked to submit a report justifying their existence. Music, art and English were the lowest scoring, while the highest were nursing, alternate-route teaching and business administration. 

Some faculty, after seeing the list of programs that could be eliminated, felt like their report wasn’t taken into account. 

“We were never involved in the conversation other than writing the reports,” said Cetin Oguz, the chair of the art department who spoke to Mississippi Today in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the university. He had joined dozens of other stunned faculty members to commiserate at a bar a few blocks from campus called Hey Joe’s. 

Over pints, some were realizing what IHL had hired Ennis to do. Their focus was shifting from the financial mess that Ennis wasn’t responsible for to the problems they felt he was creating: Decisions they believed could have been made sooner, or with more input, and more transparency.

Specifically, multiple faculty said they didn’t believe the ad hoc meetings were open to attendees, and they were frustrated by the sparseness of the meeting minutes. Ennis told Mississippi Today the meetings were open. 

Oguz, who was involved in an employment lawsuit the university settled last year, said many of Ennis’ changes have been good. Oguz said he can’t remember the last time Delta State asked him to review his department’s productivity, and he’s taught at the university for 21 years. 

But it’s been far from easy. 

“I just recruited students,” Oguz said. “They said, I just refused a scholarship from the University of Southern Miss to come to Delta State. What do you want me to do?’ I don’t have any answers for them. None of us were prepared for this.”

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.