Fate of journalism program at Delta State U. to be decided in Thursday board meeting

MISSISSIPPI — When Delta State University announced plans to eliminate five academic programs in November, students and faculty somberly gathered in mourning to protest the cutbacks.

Since then, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Mississippi Press Association, the Southeast Journalism Conference and several local media outlets have rallied behind the university’s journalism program, which would be eliminated along with funding for the university’s 83-year-old newspaper, The Delta Statement.

On Thursday the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees may drive the final nail into the journalism program’s coffin when it decides whether to accept the university’s proposal.

Although the university is free to determine its newspaper’s budget, the board must approve program eliminations, said Caron Blanton, a Mississippi Public Universities spokeswoman. Delta State President Bill LaForge will present information and numbers at the meeting.

Patricia Roberts, chairwoman of the university’s journalism program, said she worries cutting The Statement’s print production could be a step toward “eliminating the voice of students here at Delta State.”

In November, LaForge announced the university would discontinue its journalism program as part of a $1 million university-wide budget cut, which also includes the elimination of its communications/theater studies and modern foreign languages programs.

Roberts, the only journalism professor at Delta State, said her $65,000 salary including benefits is the only cost the university incurs by offering journalism coursework. Journalism students’ tuition dollars — usually about $120,000 — and about $350,000 in donor funding usually covered the cost, she said.

Twenty-two journalism students were enrolled at Delta State last fall, but that number dropped to about 10 since the November announcement, Roberts said. Freshmen who hadn’t started their journalism classes were required to change majors and some students transferred. Roberts said she will stay on staff through next school year to “teach out” students in senior-level courses.

Each semester, about 15 students join The Statement’s staff as part of the newspaper workshop class Roberts teaches, she said. If Roberts’ position is eliminated, the newspaper will no longer have a faculty adviser.

The Statement will continue in its print incarnation in the fall, before transitioning to a web-only format in the spring. With students transferring or graduating, Roberts said she expects about three students on staff spring staff.

The Mississippi Press Association sent a letter to LaForge on Monday, urging him to reconsider cutting funding to the paper and the journalism program.

“We feel the discontinuation of journalism programs at Delta State sets a terrible and disheartening precedent for a well-informed student body,” according to the letter.

Mississippi Press Association Director Layne Bruce said eliminating the student newspaper would rob the campus of a “tool of connection between students, faculty and alumni.” Bruce said the press association would be willing to offer the university financial support, possibly in the form of a grant, to keep The Statement in print as university officials figure out another source of funding.

“In addition to the multiple First Amendment issues raised in this move, closing a journalism program and eliminating the faculty position of the university’s sole journalism professor creates many other serious issues for an institution of higher education,” according to a joint news release from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Student Press Law Center. “Journalism courses not only prepare students for the field, these courses also teach students how to think critically and creatively, how to communicate clearly and how to collaborate with others — elements any employer wants in employees.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 974-6317.