With President Carmen Walter’s announcement to exit from Tougaloo College at the end of the month, she leaves the small private HBCU’s Board of Trustees and eventual president search committee in a rush to find a new permanent leader. In the last year, however, that’s nothing new to institutions in Mississippi.
Since June 2022, seven presidents have stepped down from a college or university in Mississippi, which comprises nearly half the Magnolia State’s total 4-year institutions. Five of those exits have come in the last three months. Among the seven to step down, the majority left on unfavorable terms.
Moreover, only two institutions have named a full-time successor since their president’s departure (Delta State and the University of Southern Mississippi), leaving a considerable chunk of Mississippi’s colleges and universities with vacant seats in executive leadership.
While the number of departing presidents has piled up all at once, several of them enjoyed a tenure of nine years or more, including Robert Pearigen (Millsaps College, 13 years), Rodney D. Bennet (University of Southern Mississippi, 9 years) and William LaForge (Delta State University, 9 years). The average tenure among the seven presidents who have exited is about six years, which is on par with today’s average president turnover nationally. However, the tenure for Mississippi’s HBCU presidents to have stepped down is only about three years.
Walter is stepping down from Tougaloo after four years following a faculty “mass exodus,” a 40-year enrollment low of fewer than 700 students in 2021 and pressure from both students and alumni. Students voted no-confidence in Walters in 2022 and one alumni group formed against her leadership amassed more than 1,500 signatures in a petition calling for her removal.
“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, according to Mississippi Today.
Weeks after Millsaps College President Robert Pearigen announced his resignation after over a decade of service, Ivy Taylor announced she was leaving Rust College after three years, though why has yet to be answered. Rust’s board even declined to specify whether her exit was a firing or resignation. The Board of Trustees governing Mississippi’s public universities, the Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL), terminated Felecia Nave from Alcorn State University after the school’s community began calling for her resignation in 2021 after rapid enrollment decline and administrative resignations, similar to Walters.
Less than a month before that, Jackson State University’s Thomas K. Hudson resigned after being placed on administrative leave, making him the seventh president to leave the school since 2010. Jackson State’s faculty senate voted no confidence against Hudson in January for damaging the community’s trust in school leadership and for his frequent absences from key meetings.
The IHL replaced Rodney D. Bennett from the University of Southern Mississippi in July 2022, which was nearly a year sooner than the president had initially announced he’d be stepping down. At Delta State University, IHL gave then-President William LaForge notice of his leave “just prior” to making a public statement, leaving LaForge “very disappointed.”