Adviser to embattled Delta State student newspaper dies at 66

After spending the past year fighting tirelessly for student journalism at Delta State University, Patricia Roberts succumbed to her own battle with ovarian cancer this month.

Roberts, who was the only journalism professor at Delta State and served as the Delta Statement’s adviser, died on Dec. 7. She was 66.

In November 2014, Delta State President Bill LaForge announced the university’s journalism program would be eliminated, along with four other academic programs as part of a $1 million university-wide budget cut. The funding for the print production of the Statement was also axed, forcing the paper to move to an online-only format by 2016. The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees voted unanimously to implement LaForge’s cuts, despite protests from students and faculty.

Roberts, whose salary was eliminated as part of the budget cut, was outspoken that she believed the journalism program’s elimination to be retaliatory.

She had said the administration didn’t make the final decision on cutting the journalism program until a Statement journalist started reporting on a First Amendment lawsuit against LaForge.

Roberts had appealed her termination to the Trustees, but the board never acted on the appeal.

In a remembrance, Debra Chandler Landis, editor of College Media Review, and Elisabetta Zengaro, former editor-in-chief of the Statement, wrote that Roberts never gave up defending student journalism and advocating for her students.

Zengaro wrote that Roberts “believed in me more than I believed in myself at times … I learned a lot from Patricia, but what I learned most from her was not to give up. I learned that as long as you try, you never really fail.”

Under Roberts’ guidance, the Statement won 18 state and regional awards this past spring for its reporting and graphic, print and website design.

Thomas Laird, a family friend and fellow journalist, told Zengaro and Chandler Lewis that Roberts was determined to keep fighting for her students, despite her illness.

“I know that in the last months of her life, as she was fighting for her life, people closest to her were having to say to her, ‘You can’t think about your students now, Patricia.’ She wanted to get up out of that bed and go back and teach her students. That’s not something you do for a living,” he said. “It’s something you believe in, and her whole life was driven by that sense. I’d like to think the best thing we could see in the memoriam of that would be the continuation of the journalism program.”

Read more about Roberts’ life and passion for student journalism in the Statement’s remembrance.