The search for Tougaloo College’s next president is over.
Earlier this week, the Tougaloo College Board of Trustees announced its new leader – Dr. Carmen J. Walters will become Tougaloo’s 14th president, the second woman to serve in the position. Walters’ appointment follows the retirement of Beverly Wade Hogan, the college’s first woman president, after 17 years in the post.
Walters has worked as an executive vice president of enrollment, student success, and institutional relations at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College for the past six years. She said in a news release that becoming president at the 150-year-old private historically black college is a “dream come true.
“Tougaloo has such a rich and powerful history. You can feel it when you arrive on the campus and walk these hallowed grounds. It’s a great challenge and opportunity for me to help preserve that wonderful history but also carry Tougaloo forward so that it’s here another 150 years,” she said.
While boosters laud the appointment, the selection process was not without controversy.
In an unsigned letter dated Feb. 14 and addressed to college trustees, members of the selection and a national alumni group, a group calling itself Tougaloo Alumni for Accountability and Progress, or TAPP, asked the committee to consider candidates other than the two finalists for the job, Walters and Dr. Melva Williams of Southern University at Shreveport.
The letter notes that neither candidate had experience at a private HBCU, which, the authors write, requires special fundraising expertise to meet Tougaloo’s challenges with maintaining buildings and other infrastructure, improving course offerings and student recruitment and retention.
“Neither Dr. Walters nor Dr. Williams has demonstrated the ability to lead Tougaloo at
this critical juncture, and Tougaloo is not in a position to take a chance on unproven leaders,” the authors of the letter wrote.
C.J. Lawrence, a 2003 Tougaloo graduate, said he was not involved in writing the letter and is not a member of the TAPP group but echoes the concerns outlined in it.
“They did not have a rapport or reflect they had a rapport with potential business partners and donors which are essential to ensuring that the legacy of Tougaloo can live on through financial contributions. That’s what President Hogan had in abundance,” Lawrence said.
Edmond Hughes, chairman of the Tougaloo presidential search committee, said although the committee was familiar with the letter, members did not believe it represented a majority view of stakeholders.
“We knew that was a portion of the population that felt that way and a portion of population who trusted the process and allowed the process to work,” Hughes told Mississippi Today.
“You’re always going to have differing opinions of who is the right person. I truly believe the process the board went through and the variety of individuals involved, I feel confident it was a transparent process.”
Hughes said the committee felt supremely confident in Dr. Walters’ qualifications and in the rigor of the selection process. Specifically, she has more than 24 years of experience at the community college level and has worn many hats – ranging from business, academic, and student affairs to budget, athletics and grant management.
The 12-member search committee consulted with AGB Search, a firm that specializes in executive searches for higher education institutions, to assist with the presidential search process. That committee was comprised of faculty, a Student Government Association representative, former and present Tougaloo board members and others.
Hughes said there were 70 applicants for position. In December, the committee narrowed it down to the top eight candidates to lead the college, founded in 1871. After conducting off-site interviews, the committee selected two candidates for on-site interviews and two open forums for faculty, students, and staff to meet the candidates.
“(Walters and Williams) interviewed with alumni, faculty, president’s cabinet, board of trustees, students … and we received feedback from those who participated,” said Hughes. “The search committee made its recommendation to the board of trustees and they were the ones who ultimately decided who become the next president.”
Lawrence said alumni wanted a process that was “judicious, methodical, and transparent,” and that some alumni were not pleased with the answers during the forum, he said.
“You have to have a thorough process and ensure that questions that need to be asked are truly answered,” Lawrence said. “The process opened up in December and finished by February … two months is not a very large window of time to search for somebody that’s going to replace somebody who’s given 20 years.”
Hogan, who’s set to retire on June 30, said she’s tremendously excited about the selection of Walters, in a news release.
“It will be my privilege to pass the baton of leadership to her. She brings a combined level of experiences, commitment and mature judgement that are useful in any leadership role,” said Hogan in a news release.
“Her understanding and appreciation of the college’s history and mission, as well as her demonstrated commitment to faculty and student success, will be impactful in moving the college into its best years.”
Hughes noted, in order to move the college forward and allow it to be successful, there needs to be support from the board, alumni and campus community.