Though he’s been away from Delta State University for decades, William “Bill” LaForge says he’s “green and white, through and through.”
Now he’s likely to get a chance to show his college colors all the time as president of the Cleveland school.
LaForge, a 62-year-old Washington, D.C., lobbyist who is the former president of Delta State’s alumni association was confirmed by the College Board to be the eighth president of the 4,800-student university.
LaForge met with campus groups in Cleveland. After the campus sessions, the College Board voted to confirming him.
Board members held closed meetings in recent weeks to interview seven candidates recommended by a campus search committee. No other names were released.
LaForge, a former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., has taught part-time college classes for 30 years and been a visiting law professor in Russia, Poland and Bulgaria. But he’s never worked full time for a university.
“I’m a nontraditional candidate for a university, definitely, and this is a career direction change for me,” he told reporters in a phone interview after the announcement. “I have not been in higher education administration and I hope to be able to translate the skill sets I have.”
LaForge grew up in Cleveland and is the son of William F. LaForge, who was a professor of history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Delta State. The school’s Roberts-LaForge Library honors his late father’s service.
“Cleveland and Delta State is my true home,” said LaForge, who was president of the student government association as an undergraduate.
Board leaders say that despite LaForge’s lack of academic experience, they think he’s the right choice. LaForge’s main missions will be to increase enrollment at the school and raise more money. The student total has fallen for the last five years, even as state aid to higher education has dipped.
“We need to improve access, we need to keep college education affordable,” said trustee Alan Perry, who led the College Board’s search. “In order to do that we need to increase enrollment or at least stabilize it.”
Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said LaForge, who was Delta State’s alumnus of the year in 1992, will bring valuable ties to other graduates.
“We think he will have the ability to raise money,” Bounds said. “We think he has the ability to inspire those alums to go out and recruit students.”
LaForge said he hopes to increase student recruitment in the Memphis, Tenn., area, Arkansas’ Delta region and possibly in northeast Louisiana. He also said he hoped his international ties could help bring students from abroad.
A private lobbyist since 1990, LaForge would be the second former Cochran chief of staff leading a Mississippi school. The board named Mark Keenum as Mississippi State University president in 2009.
“Our senior senator gave me and Mark tremendous opportunities,” LaForge said.
However, because of a congressional ban on earmarks, ties to Cochran and his seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee may not be as valuable as they once were. “Getting congressional funding is not as easy as it used to be,” LaForge said.
After graduating from Delta State, LaForge earned a law degree from the University of Mississippi and a master of laws from Georgetown University. He also studied international law at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.
LaForge and his wife Nancy have two adult children, Caroline and Clayton.