Two years after Delta State University announced a plan to cut its journalism program, students continue to mourn its loss.

While cutting $1 million from its budget, Delta State slashed journalism and four other programs — athletic training, theater and communication studies, modern foreign languages and real estate/insurance. Among the casualties was the print version of student newspaper The Delta Statement, which cost $10,000 a year to produce.

“You have to have accountability and checks and balances in place, and a student newspaper does that,” said DSU senior Conor Bell, a current Neshoba Democrat reporter and former staff member of The Delta Statement. “They keep students, professors and administrators in check, and they make sure everything is running in favor of the students. … The volume’s been turned down on that voice.”

Former Statement editor Elisabetta Zengaro, who is pursuing her master’s at DSU, led the newspaper to win second place in the college division of the Louisiana/Mississippi Associated Press Media Editors Contest.

“I was really upset about it, because it’s a great tool for students,” she said of the newspaper, which is online only. “It’s kind of like the yearbook. It tracks the history of each passing year, … so to me it was a huge blow, because you lose what makes the university and the town what it should be.”

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Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association, said some community colleges in the state and Mississippi University for Women have moved their student newspapers from print to digital only in recent years.

“The world in which we live in terms of media consumption changes on a daily basis, but to terminate the journalism program lock, stock and barrel even though it was a small program seemed like a bridge too far,” he said, “Particularly when it comes to matters of communications between students on campus, and student newspapers are an important avenue the university had to communicate with its alumni.”

Some former Delta Statement staff members question if the decision to cut the journalism program was connected to stories published on the budget cuts and a lawsuit against DSU President Bill LaForge.

Former Delta State English professor Bill Hays, who has since retired, sued LaForge in federal court after he was removed from his position as chairman for the Division of Languages and Literature in May 2014. A judge dismissed the case in 2015, and Hays filed another lawsuit in Bolivar County Circuit Court in November.

That suit alleges defamation, invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress.

In June, LaForge’s attorney, Cal Mayo, filed an appeal in Mississippi Supreme Court arguing the case should be dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired. Mayo directed further questions to Delta State.

Delta State spokeswoman Jennifer Farish said LaForge and Vice President for Communications Michelle Roberts were out of town and unavailable for comment.

About a week after the newspaper printed a story about the initial lawsuit, students learned the university was considering cutting the journalism program.

“We did our own investigation and laid out the facts that the journalism program did meet enrollment requirements, and we continued to investigate and compared it to other programs with lower enrollment that didn’t get cut,” Zengaro said. “We kept pushing it through.”

Last year, the state College Board approved cutting the journalism program and print version of the student newspaper.

“We couldn’t prove it was retaliation, but we made a strong case to keep it, and if they’d cared to preserve it, they could have found some way to keep journalism alive that would have been more cost effective if it really was too expensive,” Zengaro said.

The Mississippi Press Association and Society of Professional Journalists drafted statements in support of the program and newspaper. MPA also said it would cover the costs to print a limited production of the newspaper, but the university didn’t accept the offer.

“That means, obviously, they were getting rid of the newspaper for some reason other than financial,” said attorney Ron Lewis, who is representing Hays in his lawsuit against LaForge. “It had come right on the heels of student journalists’ article critical of the university for what it was doing with these programs, and we felt that Dr. Hays was not renewed as chair in order to silence him because he’d been outspoken against these cuts.”

Contact Mollie Bryant at mbryant2@gannett.com or 601-961-7251. Follow her on Twitter.

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