The College Board voted unanimously Thursday in a meeting in Cleveland to appoint LaForge as Delta State's eighth president, succeeding John Hilpert. The vote came after LaForge met with campus groups.
"There's no reason why this university cannot excel, so that we become truly a Mississippi university of national distinction," LaForge told supporters as he was introduced.
A 62-year-old Washington, D.C., lobbyist and former president of DSU's alumni association, LaForge grew up in Cleveland. He's the son of William F. LaForge, who was a professor of history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Delta State. The school's Roberts-LaForge Library honors his late father, and LaForge himself was alumnus of the year in 1992.
Board officials say those deep ties will help LaForge attract more students to the 4,800-student campus and court more donations.
"He has a great following already," College Board member Alan Perry, who led the search committee that interviewed LaForge and six other candidates, said in a phone interview. "He has a lot of support."
LaForge starts work April 15. He will be paid $221,812 a year, said College Board spokeswoman Caron Blanton. Hilpert, who has led the school since 2003, plans to be on the job through the school's May 4 commencement. LaForge said that overlap should help him learn the ropes. "I envision a very smooth transition," he said in a phone interview.
Perry said LaForge's top immediate challenges are to increase enrollment and to choose new top executives to assist him. LaForge said he hopes to use Delta State's decision to abolish out-of-state tuition to bring in more students from Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and abroad.
"I will be recruiting in the high schools personally," he said.
LaForge is a former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi. He has taught part-time college classes for 30 years and been a visiting law professor in Russia, Poland and Bulgaria. But he's never worked full time for a university.
A private lobbyist since 1990, LaForge would be the second former Cochran chief of staff leading a Mississippi school. The board named Mark Keenum as Mississippi State University president in 2009.
LaForge said Cochran was one of the first people to call him after the College Board nominated him for the presidency last week.
After graduating from Delta State, LaForge earned a law degree from the University of Mississippi and a master of laws from Georgetown University. He also studied international law at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.
LaForge and his wife Nancy have two adult children, Caroline and Clayton.