MISSISSIPPI — Students at Delta State University bowed their heads in mourning.
While the hearse contained no coffin and the urns held only baby powder “ashes,” more than 80 students and faculty gathered in November 2014 to memorialize the loss of three academic programs in the Division of Languages and Literature — communications/theater studies, modern foreign languages and journalism.
Delta State student Conor Bell said he organized the event as more than a funeral. It was a protest against what Bell called administrators’ fear tactics.
“We’re tired of the fear-mongering here at Delta State,” the junior journalism major said. “We’re tired of how some faculty members are scared for their jobs here at Delta State.”
In November, the university announced it would discontinue five academic programs as part of a $1 million university-wide budget cut. Academic programs in athletic training and real estate/insurance were also terminated.
Although Delta State President Bill LaForge said the programs were discontinued because of low enrollment and a failure to meet several standards, the university’s only journalism professor, Patricia Roberts, said she believes the program was axed because of ongoing conflict between the Division of Languages and Literature and LaForge’s administration.
The student newspaper’s $10,000 printing budget was also eliminated, which will likely cause The Delta Statement to adopt an online-only format.
“The students really don’t read the print paper,” said LaForge, who wrote for the newspaper as an undergraduate. “They’ll read it online, maybe.”
Bell said he believes administrators cut the newspaper to censor student writers on campus, who often come into conflict with the university.
“They say it’s about money, but I feel like there must be other issues at play,” said Roberts, who teaches all journalism courses and serves as The Delta Statement’s adviser.
Roberts estimated that the annual cost to offer the program is just her $65,000 salary and benefits. Additionally, Roberts said a fund valued at more than $400,000 was set aside to pay for journalism programming at the university. In 2008, Roberts spent about $100,000 for a new newsroom. But now, she said she is not sure where the endowment money will go.
LaForge said he would be happy to return the paper to print one day, possibly with the endowment.
In October 2014, Bill Hays, the former chair of the Division of Languages and Literature department, filed suit against LaForge, arguing LaForge demoted him because he exercised his freedom of speech on campus. Roberts said she believes this “conflict” between the administration and the department is the “underlying cause” of her program’s demise.
Roberts said a student journalist wrote an article about the lawsuit, which may have contributed to administrators’ decision to cut the journalism program. While she initially discouraged student writers from reporting on administrative controversy, she said the Hays lawsuit was too newsworthy to ignore.
“I think they may not have made that final decision until Conor Bell’s article on the lawsuit,” she said. “The morning that they made the second vote on budget cuts, he phoned and asked for an interview with the president. Then, I learned that the cut made that day was exactly $65,000.”
However, LaForge said Roberts’ allegation is a “sad distraction” and that Hays’ lawsuit is “an entirely different situation altogether.”
“This is a very transparent administration,” LaForge said. “There’s no retaliation here.”
LaForge said the endowment was not considered when administrators reviewed programs to eliminate and that, although the journalism program will end at the end of the academic year, the endowment will continue to serve Delta State’s journalism efforts.
“That money will certainly be used to support journalistic activities, things on campus that are related to that field,” LaForge said, adding that if the journalism program were self-sustaining, “this wouldn’t have ever come up.”
LaForge said the budget reduction process began in July 2014 when he and his cabinet reviewed all academic and non-academic programs and initially identified 28 academic programs with low enrollment.
The cabinet then identified ten programs, including journalism, that LaForge said did not “support general education,” were not essential to the university’s overall mission, were not considered “signature programs” and did not offer an opportunity for growth or distinction. This number was then whittled down to five.
“It was very thorough, very data-driven, very objective from the beginning but we also applied the narrative analysis that allowed us to size things up and really decide whether or not these were things that we could afford to do, and the bottom line was we can’t afford to be everything to everybody,” LaForge said.
LaForge said the budget reduction will affect 10 faculty members and 41 students. He said students with at least one upper-level course in one of the five eliminated programs will be able to finish their degrees.
However, freshman Jarrod Bethel, who does not have the required upper-level coursework, said he plans to transfer after this year to a university where he can pursue journalism.
“I’ve already accepted that I’ll have to go to a different college,” he said. “I already know a lot of teachers and instructors are leaving the school, so I don’t even think I’d being getting the best instruction if I stayed.”
LaForge said he hopes to restore all five discontinued programs in the future, but budget cuts often lead to tough decisions.
“We’re one of four regional universities. We are not a flagship university doing research. We are a teaching institution,” he said. “We have a tough job to do here, and we’re managing scarce resources every day.”
Journalism student Elisabetta Zengaro, who serves as The Delta Statement’s editor in chief, said the university should have considered journalism a “signature program” because only two other public institutions in Mississippi offer journalism degrees.
“We are a university located in one of the poorest regions in the poorest state of the country,” she said. “There’s a need for student journalism.”
Contact SPLC staff writer Elaina Koros by email or at (202) 974-6317.
Corrections (1/27/2015, 1:45 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misrepresented Patricia Roberts’ compensation. Her annual salary and benefits total $65,000. Also, a name was misspelled. Conor Bell wrote the article about the lawsuit Bill Hays filed against the university. The story has been updated to reflect these corrections.
Correction (1/28/2015, 11:00 a.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the defendants in Bill Hays’ lawsuit. He filed suit against Delta State University President Bill LaForge. The story has been updated to reflect this correction.