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Dive Brief: 

  • Tougaloo College’s president, Carmen Walters, announced Tuesday she will step down from her position at the end of June amid criticism of her administration, including calls for her ouster. 
  • In her message, Walters did not share a reason for leaving the historically Black institution in Mississippi after her four-year tenure. A group called the Tougaloo Alumni Coalition for Change launched a petition in February to remove her and other top executives from their posts, critiquing their handling of enrollment and financial practices.  
  • Tougaloo’s trustee board said it will conduct a national search to replace Walters. Trustees appointed Donzell Lee, professor emeritus at Alcorn State University, as interim president effective July 1. Lee previously led Alcorn State, another Mississippi HBCU, as interim president during the 2018-19 academic year as it searched for a permanent leader.

Dive Insight: 

In her announcement, Walters lauded developments she and Tougaloo’s administration spearheaded since she stepped into the role in 2019. Among them, Walters noted that Tougaloo had climbed U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings, weathered a cyberattack that attempted to disrupt its network and more than doubled its endowment to $31 million. 

“While navigating through a devastating pandemic and combating record-breaking low enrollment for HBCUs nationwide, Tougaloo College made significant strides,” Walters wrote. 

Likewise, the trustee board thanked her for her work at the college.

“We are especially grateful to Dr. Walters for her leadership over these past four years — leading the College through the COVID-19 global pandemic, significantly increasing the College’s endowment, and strengthening our external partnerships,” they wrote. “We, along with the entire Tougaloo College family, wish her well in her future endeavors.” 

However, the Tougaloo Alumni Coalition for Change has held a much more critical view of Walters’ tenure. 

In response to Walters’ announcement, the group said they are “satisfied but underwhelmed.”

“Unfortunately, Dr. Walters was only symptomatic of the larger structural problems occurring at Tougaloo College, which include, but are not limited to, lack of transparency, unethical practices, and lackadaisical accountability measures exhibited by the Board of Trustees,” the group said in a statement. 

Walters previously told the Mississippi Clarion Ledger that the group isn’t reflective of the college’s official alumni association. But a representative for the group said via email Wednesday that the coalition members are also all members of the Tougaloo College National Alumni Association. 

Among the coalition’s complaints was declining enrollment at Tougaloo, where the student headcount has reached a four-decade low, according to the online petition. 

Federal data backs up that claim. Tougaloo’s enrollment dropped to 713 students in fall 2021, down 8% from the year before. The college’s homepage puts enrollment for spring 2023 at over 633 students

Tougaloo did not immediately respond to Higher Ed Dive’s request for comment Wednesday. 

The online petition also voiced concerns about rampant turnover. 

It alleged the current administration has cycled through three vice presidents of student affairs, two chief financial officers, and two provosts/academic deans in three years. It also said there were around 40 vacant positions on the college’s website, arguing that this is “record turnover rate among this group.” 

Tougaloo had just five open positions on its website as of Wednesday afternoon, including a post seeking a new provost. 

The creators of the online petition say they’re publicizing their concerns during a critical time for the college, which is scheduled for review by its accreditor in 2025. The online petition has garnered more than 1,500 signatures.