OPINION: Tougaloo College’s presidential transition continues to unfold, offers challenges

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Tougaloo College is one of the oldest and most prestigious historically Black colleges in America, and long a highly-rated liberal arts college. It has joined the ranks of the other historically Black colleges in the state of Mississippi that have experienced presidential changes within a year – Jackson State late last year and in quick succession this year, Alcorn State University, and Rust College. Only Mississippi Valley State University has been exempted.

Last week, the Tougaloo College Board of Trustees issued a statement announcing the resignation of Dr. Carmen Walters. In the announcement, the board did not elaborate on the causes for the abrupt departure, which these days seem to be standard protocol. It helps avoid embarrassments as well as possible lawsuits. 

Meanwhile, Dr. Walters had issued a statement to the Tougaloo College family, indicating that she was stepping down as college president. In her announcement, she provided a list of 27 things accomplished during her administration, of which she was very proud. She, nevertheless, gave no indication that there was a problem(s) that precipitated the resignation.

In March 2023, a group of Tougaloo college alumni, named the “Coalition for Change”, claimed there was some student unrest and low morale with students being concerned about “deplorable” living conditions and the management of financial aid funding. They also said that some alumni and staff were concerned about the decline in enrollment (a 40-year low), the inability to recruit, hire, and retain key personnel, the vacant unfilled Registrar position (over 18 months), a budget deficit of more than $1.5 million, more adjunct faculty teaching than full-time faculty, and fiscal mismanagement. Whether or how the board of trustees assessed those concerns is not clear. 

Meanwhile, according to the Coalition’s June 6th press release, a petition drive generated 1,577 signatures and was accompanied by phone calls to individual board members. After these actions, reportedly the board and President Walters reached an agreement that she would step-down at the end of June, and according to one source, be paid for six months of her annual contracted salary. According to that same source, the vote of the board in favor of those actions was 12 – 3.

In its announcement of the change, the board of trustees appointed Dr. Donzell Lee, a retired Alcorn State University administrator, to serve as Tougaloo’s interim president beginning July 1, 2023. The board also named Dr. Blondean Davis and Dr. Chris Gilmer as co-chairs of the committee to search for a permanent president.

That is how things have unfolded thus far. Going forward, the college is in a position to utilize, in a positive way, the challenges noted in the effort to re-direct the college during the past year. 

One of those challenges was that last year students reportedly were ignored when they presented a signed petition of no confidence in Walters’ administration. In a continuing effort to press their concerns, this Spring Semester one of the student government officers allegedly was bullied and severely pressured after she read the student demands from the podium at a university program. As a result of her alleged treatment, she reportedly dropped out of school, not completing the term. The alleged denial of student freedom of expression is a challenge that must be overcome going forward, especially when it involves their own welfare and academic development. The student movements in the 1960s and 70s clearly demonstrated that fact.

A similar challenge involves the faculty senate. Reportedly, it took no position as matters were developing on the campus. One can imagine the positive actions that may have resulted, or that can happen in the future, if and when the voice of the faculty senate is included in discussing these critical matters. 

A third challenge is that from many indicators the formal alumni association decided to remain silent and not “air the dirty linen” in the public, as the campus was experiencing its conflict. Sometimes, the alumni association is the last best hope for a historically Black college that is dealing with an administration that the campus community feels is on the wrong track. Without public support, the college community is often doomed for defeat.

As things move forward, all true Tougalooans and their supporters can repair and re-build whatever was lost and more. Based upon its history, Tougaloo deserves to remain one of the most highly-rated liberal arts colleges in America.

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OPINION: Tougaloo College’s presidential transition continues to unfold, offers challenges

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
June 19, 2023