Business News for the Mississippi Delta

Bill LaForge

DSU’s new president bleeds green and white 

By Angela Rogalski

Bill LaForge respects the individual and has a rapport when it comes to communicating with people. His past experience in both the private and the public sectors attest to that fact. His skill sets span the spectrum of law, government, higher education and public policy. So his new job as president of Delta State University is one most people who know him, think he’s perfect for.

LaForge grew up in Cleveland. His dad was the dean of arts and sciences at Delta State. He completed his undergraduate work at Delta State and he worked for a year before pursuing his law degree at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He met and became great friends with former chancellor Robert Khayat while he was in law school at Ole Miss.

“When I was a first-year law student, I was a part of the work study program,” explains LaForge. “My supervisor loaned me to Dr. Robert Khayat to help him move his office. And on one Friday afternoon, when the Ole Miss Nation was off at a football game, he and I moved all his books and everything out of his office and got to know each other really well. And the classy part of the story is he didn’t just let me do it; we did it together.”

Khayat remembers LaForge when he was that young, ambitious law student. 

“Bill has always been such an outgoing, likable person,” says Khayat. “And to me, he was always smiling and nice to people, always. He was smart as a whip, of course, but he wore Weejuns, or what we called, in my day, Penny Loafers. And I started teasing him about his loafers, because he always had them on. And it sort of became a running joke with us over the years. And then one day, about 10 years ago, I get this package in the mail and it’s a pair of size 13 loafers that he had bought and sent to me so I could have a matching pair.”

Khayat adds that during law school, LaForge was popular and successful, and he never had any doubt that someday the young man would be a star, wherever his future took him. 

He also says a little more than six months ago, LaForge asked for his opinion on the Delta State position.

“I told Bill that I thought he would be the perfect person for the job, knowing the familial connection, his dad having been a dean there and the fact that he grew up in Cleveland,” explains Khayat. “Because I can tell you from my own experience, my personal knowledge, familiarity and feelings about the school had a lot to do with my ability to function as chancellor of Ole Miss. I didn’t have to go into some kind of extended learning curve.”

Khayat adds that Delta State has a lot of strengths and that LaForge is the right man to reinforce them.

“Bill is a charismatic person who will inspire the faculty, staff and the students to be their best and to keep striving for excellence.”

When LaForge finished law school, he was a prosecutor for a short period of time in Greenville before transitioning to Capitol Hill. 

“I enjoyed practicing law in the Delta, but eventually I moved to Washington D.C. to work for Congressman David Bowen,” says LaForge. “I worked with him for three years. Then I became the congressional relations director on the senior staff for the Peace Corps.” 

In 1980, doors opened for LaForge to accept a new position with Senator Thad Cochran. 

“Senator Cochran found himself in the enviable position of being in the new Republican majority in the senate because of the (Ronald) Reagan landslide for president,” explains LaForge.  “He gained an esteemed position as chairman of one of the important subcommittees on the appropriation committee in the senate. And for Mississippi it was very important. It was the appropriation subcommittee on agriculture. And he asked me to be his staff director for that subcommittee, so I became his counsel and director. I did that for a couple of years and then eventually became his chief of staff. I essentially worked for him the entire decade of the 80s and for more than half that time was his chief of staff.”

“Bill helped to accomplish many things for the state of Mississippi and the nation as a whole,” says Senator Cochran of LaForge’s time spent as his chief of staff. “He’s a terrific person with a wonderful sense of responsibility.”

And where Delta State is concerned, Sen. Cochran was adamant about his opinion of Bill LaForge as president.

“Bill is a product of that university,” he says. “And he feels a sense of responsibility to it. He has a lot of talent, energy and good judgment. He is a natural leader.”

LaForge explains that during his Washington career he retained his connection to higher education.

“My entire time in Washington, I was an adjunct professor,” he says. “My love and passion for higher education probably stemmed from DNA on the one hand, from my father, but I’ve been an adjunct professor at George Washington University since 1982 and before that, another university locally.”

LaForge also held visiting professorships at law schools in Eastern Europe and Russia. 

“I just got back from Poland, for example,” he says. “So I’ve been in higher education, mostly classroom instruction, for almost all my career. But it was more of an avocation than a vocation. My career has really been a blend of law, government and government relations—public policy and advocacy, also known as lobbying. So when I left Senator Cochran’s staff at the end of 1990, I went into the private sector.”

In the past 20 years, LaForge was a member of three successive government relations firms and headed up his own firm for the past two years.  

However, Delta State had been calling him home for years.  

“I had been approached by several people about ten years ago to come back to Cleveland and be considered for this position,” LaForge says. “But it wasn’t a good time for my family or my career. My children were still in high school and then college after that, but now, they’re both adults and lawyers who have since launched their own careers.”

LaForge says circumstances were better this time around for him and his family when he was approached again.

“About one year ago, some of the same people came to me and said President (John) Hilpert was thinking about retiring, which he did,” explains LaForge. “So we gave it a lot of thought and consideration and decided if this was something I could do, I really should do it now. This would be the opportune time, given my career stage and age, and everything else.”

LaForge has received a warm homecoming by many people. Longtime friend and Cleveland Mayor Billy Nowell is one of them.

“Bill and I graduated high school together in 1968,” Mayor Nowell says. “Then we graduated DSU together in 1972. He was president of our student government association and I was vice-president. So we’ve known each other a long time.”

Mayor Nowell is extremely pleased about LaForge’s position as the new president of Delta State.

“Bill is one of the finest people I know,” Mayor Nowell says. “He will be a tremendous recruiter for the university and a great citizen for Cleveland. And both the school and our town will benefit from his being here.”

LaForge says his career path has afforded him some wonderful opportunities and a development of skill sets and a number of experiences that really have prepared him for the new challenges at Delta State. 

“From dealing with government, law and higher education at a number of levels, to government relations and public policy; I feel the broad spectrum of experiences I have dealt with during my career will help me tremendously,” says LaForge. “So this seems like a great fit. I’ve managed offices, been a leader of organizations, was national president of the Federal Bar Association; so I’ve had the good fortune to either preside over or manage organizations, including Senator Cochran’s office.”

Delta State President Emeritus Dr. Kent Wyatt is in agreement that Bill LaForge is up for the challenge.

“I’ve known Bill since he was a young boy growing up in Cleveland and when he was attending Delta State,” Wyatt says. “He is the right fit to lead DSU at this point in time. President LaForge is a gifted individual with the ability to interact positively with students, staff, faculty and alumni.”

LaForge says he thought long and hard about the credentials he was bringing to the table. 

“And I came to the conclusion that I thought I could do this,” he says. “I’m a non-traditional president and I was a non-traditional candidate, meaning I did not come out of higher education administration. So it’s a little bit different. But a lot of the skill sets I do have translate over to what a contemporary president does today at a university, including fundraising, management, leadership and basically being the voice and face of an important institution.”

Butch Scipper, chancery clerk and county administrator in Quitman County has also known LaForge since college.

“Bill and I were fraternity brothers at Delta State,” Scipper says. “He is one of the most outstanding people I’ve ever met. Every entity he has been associated with has achieved excellence. He leads by doing, which makes him a true servant leader. And he motivates everyone around him to be the best they can be. He is family oriented and friendships, past and present, are vital to him.”

Laforge’s first day as president was April 15, 2013, and he already feels right at home. 

“It’s been great,” he says. “It’s a rush and frankly, I’m drinking from a fire hose, right now. But my first day was absolutely perfect. The reception, warmth and congeniality of the people in Cleveland and on campus are beyond description. So the warm welcome home is ideal.” 

Ned Mitchell, president of SouthGroup Insurance in Cleveland, is one of those people welcoming Bill LaForge back home.

“Bill LaForge is a true Renaissance Man,” Mitchell says. “And his experience, abilities and love for our university will empower him to help make great progress for DSU, Cleveland and the entire region.”

LaForge says his first week might be a baptism by fire, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. And his plans for the future of Delta State are shining bright from the glow of the challenge.

“I consider Delta State a Mississippi university of national distinction,” says LaForge.  “We’re going to set out to make sure everybody knows that. It fits hand and glove with Smithsonian’s number two-ranking of Cleveland and the vicinity, recently being in the top 20 great places to visit in the United States under 15,000 in population. That says a lot for Cleveland, and Delta State is a part of that equation, of course. We’re married. Cleveland and Delta State are one in one. We have a GRAMMY® Museum Annex coming here, we have a wonderful curriculum at Delta State; some people equate Delta State as the public Ivy League type school. There’s our Liberal Arts program, but we also have wonderful business and nursing schools. We have an aviation program, where we teach students to fly planes. We have an excellent music department and an excellent Delta Music Institute that teaches students the business side of sound production. 

We have some really unique niche programs here that separate Delta State from any other university in the region. And there is every reason in the world for students to come here. And we’ve also gone to a single tuition policy. I can go recruit students in Memphis, Arkansas, Louisiana or Alabama and they’ll pay in-state tuition. We want to be more competitive. We want to bring students here and let them see this is a special place.

I grew up here, my dad was a dean here and I went to college here. The ties are strong. And we’re going to continue to grow our great potential.”