Five years ago, Delta State University welcomed home its beloved student as its president: Bill LaForge.
As a Cleveland native, and the son of DSU’s Dean of College Arts and Science William LaForge (whose name can be found on the university’s library building), his homecoming seems obvious. But he is a nontraditional president.
“I did not come through the way of academia,” said LaForge, recounting his 37 years in Washington D.C. where he first served as Chief of Staff to Thad Cochran then as chief counsel for an appropriations subcommittee for the U.S. Senate. As a registered lobbyist he specialized in federal government relations as he represented businesses and organizations with public policy interests – a topic he also taught for over 25 years as an adjunct professor at three different universities including Georgetown. His post-graduate journey took him to Russia, Poland and Bulgaria as a visiting professor, too.
Then he came home to the one place that helped impact Mississippi, United States and other countries around the world – Delta State University.
“There’s this natural affinity you might think,” LaForge said, “plus I’m a product of this university. It gave me the platform to grow and develop in many areas, not only in my own competencies of history and philosophy but in law school, student organizations, Greek life, leadership opportunities – all were great and I want that for our students today. That’s a part of my passion in doing all of this; it was natural for me to come back to my alma mater. Not everyone has that opportunity; I’m very privileged to do that.”
When he first stepped into charge for Delta State on April of 2013 the university had suffered decreasing enrollment and inefficient budget for the past eight years. The cabinet members were leaving with his predecessor. It was “an almost-crisis.”
LaForge faced the looming mountain ahead with these goals: stabilize the budget, also stabilize enrollment, curate a leadership team, grow the university’s international presence, expand campus programming, and boost academic excellence.
There is elation in his voice as he said the budget “is in the black.”
“Our budget was in a precarious position when I arrived,” LaForge said. “We had to undertake some painful program eliminations: we closed a program in Clarksdale, closed our laundry and last year, we closed our golf course which was not really well-used.”
As a regional university that isn’t one of major universities Delta State has to be lean and mean with scarce resources in LaForge’s words.
He added that the university is largely dependent on state support that has been strong but this last year was “basically static with a small increase so basically flat funding.”
“For the 2016 and 2017 year we had combined 14.5 percent cut, that was a killer for a public university – many people would say untenable,” LaForge said. “I think our legislators do what they can with the lack of state revenue I guess that’s all our problem.”
While half of the university’s funding depends on the state the other “big chunk that allows us to operate” is tuition.
LaForge said, “This past year was the first year in history in 90 years that Delta State University derived more revenue from tuition rather than the state. What that does is it forces us to think about tuition increases which we might not have done if we didn’t get state support. It’s difficult to run an operation when you’re not getting the money then cut midstream so we had to increase tuition five percent last week, incoming this year.”
Despite these challenges the university matched its budget and LaForge is grateful that programs and faculty were protected from big cuts.
“No one was let go, not one,” he said. “This summer, primarily because we were able to raise tuition I was able to give a three percent raise based on merit. That’s the first raise in three years – badly needed to a very well-deserved faculty and staff who work hard every day.”
The last component of the university’s funding lies in donations from charity to foundation support to private gifts.
“We’ve had an up tick in charitable giving to this university,” LaForge said. “We haven’t done the final audit but we believe this has been our biggest charitable year in history. We’ve been demonstrating we’re going places as a respectable university with every reason to believe our programs and graduates are going to be successful because our measure of success is that it does them no good and gives us no pleasure having someone hang out here for two years the not finish. It’s all about getting the graduates and helping them get a job.”
He appreciates the support from partnerships with foundations, and added that the university will embark on a capital campaign soon. The university has announced a few major gifts in seven-figures as well as several six figure gifts, and may ask for state support and financial support.
“When you ask how we have fared,” LaForge said, “we never have had big windfalls of dollars to use in a surge way. It’s all incremental. For one example, we have millions of dollars of deferred maintenance on this campus and most of that will be corrected from bonds from legislature. IF we get five million of bond authorization that’s all we can do. We’ll do that this year.”
With improved budgeting LaForge and his leadership team are now putting finishing touches on projects across campus.
“We’re not building new buildings, we’re renovating and restoring our existing buildings,” LaForge said.
Among the fixer-uppers is the music building to which the Delta Music Institute will get keys to enjoy the renovations this summer. The university cafeteria is also improved and will open this August.
The budget decisions were tough, and among the dynamic changes he made to the university, but he said those decisions helped them “right the ship.”
The university enrollment has steadily increased for the past four years. LaForge notes that some people consider Delta State a secret treasure in Mississippi. He likes the treasure part, but not so much the secret part.
“We have a mission first of all to serve the citizenry of the Delta and the state,” LaForge said. “We’re a regional university and we’re doing our best to serve a population that is often quite unprepared or under prepared for college. Many students come from first-generation college families, first person in their families to go to college. Many don’t have the economic means to go to college so we have Pell Grant students. We have a great many students who are not like many, who are not privileged or have those opportunities to pay for it and we’re passionate about it and proud of our progress here.”
He added that Delta State’s tuition is the third lowest of any university in Mississippi, just north of $7,000 a year.
“I used to teach at George Washington and Georgetown universities as an adjunct professor. Their tuition for one year now exceeds $50,000, that’s four two-year educations at Delta State University. They’re private, granted, but the bargain you get with a DSU education is incredible,” LaForge said.
Now he has a team of professionals who help him bring the university to greater heights. He is also proud of the faculty who puts “that personal touch on our instruction.”
“It’s all up to our faculty to give first team first attention to every student,” he said. “Unique ways you prepare them we do it with a personal touch, that professor who goes an extra mile an extra day getting over the hump. We have a saying here: ‘Join in and stand out.’ That’s not only in the classroom but in extracurricular. We want them to be well-rounded when they get here. We have a comprehensive approach because we want a complete package student as much as we can. We are student-centric, in and out of the classroom. We like that student engagement; I come to it very honestly and naturally because I went to school here, and had a great four-year experience. That’s why I came back to be president. I know what this place is, I value it, and I want our students to have the same experience I had many years ago.”
The faculty especially supports students in signature programs like aviation, accounting, social work, music, nursing, teaching and education.
Delta State University also has more support for its existing international programs along with a new study abroad program that is less than a year old. Now they have international exchange with students, faculty and staff around the world.
“I taught at a law school in Poland, the Second Catholic University of Lublin in May and signed a new agreement with them.” LaForge said, “We’re bringing our first Fulbright scholar to research and teach here; she’s bringing her children to go to public school. We’ve more than doubled our international students in four years – record high (was) this past spring with 134 students from 48 different countries.”
LaForge also tackled his fifth goal: expand campus programming. Delta State University now includes “a number of cutting-edge activities” such as race-relations conference called “Winning the Race,” where the panelists host crucial dialogue on issues dealing with race in the Delta. The university also has its International Delta Blues Conference where bluesmen and those who love them can engage in history, music, and everything in between.
“I began a colloquium which is our distinguished speaker series,” LaForge said. “We’ve had speakers here like the former governor William Winter to Robert Khayat to Fred Smith, CEO and founder of FedEx – an incredible array of speakers in the last five years.”
He also boosted the university’s community engagement efforts. For example, LaForge sponsored the university’s annual Mayor’s Summit which hosts all mayors in the Delta. He also created a recent program called “Elect the Local Government Leadership Institute” which gives basic training to public officials at the municipal, county and local levels on how to run the government.
LaForge’s sixth and prominent goal is boosting academics, a major undertaking for the university, but the impact of his goal is not underestimated.
The university improved standards and credentials as well as increasing graduation and retention rates.
“We’re doing more to keep our students in school on the path to graduation,” LaForge said.
The seniors in every major are required to complete a capstone project – a culmination project of their newly-gained knowledge in their majors and how it can be applied to existing problems. These projects can be a thesis, an experiment, or recital presentations.
The university also requires every graduate in their senior years to take two courses that include enhanced writing skills development.
“We’ve listened to business and graduate schools saying, ‘We want better writers,’” LaForge said. “Those two up ticks of our academics should make our graduates more competitive, have better skills, and be more marketable not just for jobs but for seats in graduate professional schools – it should resound as a reputational benefit to Delta State University.”
The university also added a center for teaching and learning. Its purpose is to provide an internal professional development for the faculty so they can remain current in their fields not just in teaching content but in implementing the methodology, relating to the youth and advising the students.
LaForge added the Gertrude Ford program also committed a multi-million-dollar pledge to underwrite the center for teaching and learning.
The impact of this sixth goal is far-reaching, past the university’s campus and beyond Cleveland. LaForge stressed the importance of education, especially the role of higher education in Mississippi.
“Education generally, and higher education is critical to Mississippi and Mississippians – make no mistake,” LaForge said. “It’s vital to our future collectively as a state, to the Delta who we serve here, and to individuals. It’s a key to the new Mississippi if we’re going to break off the bottom of these categories we get scored in every year – at the bottom of every list that people get ashamed of. It’s education that is the key to pick the lock to the new Delta. Mississippians don’t understand, sometimes, how good they really have it. You have eight state-supported universities…”
He said that the eight university presidents all know each other well, and they compete sometimes, but he commends them for doing a great job with scarce resources provided for students in Mississippi. Currently, the value and the market for the universities in Mississippi “is outstanding.”
“We need a higher amount of high school graduates and community college graduates to come to the university level, get a degree, and move on, simple enough,” he said. “A college degree means more than one million – more in your career in economic terms. It makes people more interesting, more aware, more interested in other things – it’s all good reasons for going to school.”
He acknowledges that not every degree will get someone hired immediately, but pointed out that there are several programs that can support a career change. For example, at Delta State University, one can enroll in its successful courses in aviation, accounting and nursing.
Although, he notes that vocational education is just as important as higher education.
“If college isn’t for everyone we should have vocational opportunities,” he said, “training on the job – breaking out of the poverty cycle, out of where we are as a state on the bottom rung.”
LaForge hopes that his goals will have a lasting impact on the university. Many of them were already realized, but he said that others are still works in progress because of how important they are to him.
He said, “I’ll tell you when I walk away from this position one day, the visioning principles we put into place here, which we just went through today – I call that an advance because we’re moving forward not retreating backwards. These principles are snapshots of where we want to go as an university, the success we would see five to 10 years down the road, the impact we can make…a headline would be great: Delta State helped cut poverty in the state by half, or two national championships in one year giving our athletes an incredible experience, or a Grammy winner recorded at Delta Music Institute. You have to think big, and I don’t mean too big for your britches. I mean think big because we’re offering the world to our students and international programming. If we can’t send a student abroad we will bring the world to them.”
He added: “Delta State is on fire, in the best way possible. We’re going to a new year, we have a new student orientation, the excitement level is at an all-time high. We have a great group here isolated in the Delta doing great things. If people want to see that, we invite them to come to the campus. Don’t just believe the printed word, come take a look.”
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