JACKSON, Miss. – Tucked behind a Target store on 500 acres of shaded grounds, little Tougaloo College (search) has survived for 134 years in a relatively obscure corner of academia.
While beloved by its 800-member student body and a hardcore group of dedicated alumni, Tougaloo has struggled with declining enrollment and a chronic funding shortage.
But Tougaloo President Beverly Hogan and other backers of the school are hoping a commencement address from former President Bill Clinton on Sunday and a Democratic presidential debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus (search) will bring the troubled campus some positive attention.
Clinton, one of the world's most sought-after speakers and arguably the highest paid, isn't charging Tougaloo a fee. While Hogan is grateful and honored by the gesture, she said she wants more.
"I'm hoping that Tougaloo College becomes part of the things he thinks about," said Hogan, who met Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas and she directed Mississippi's Office of Federal State Programs. "I won't let him forget Tougaloo."
Though it produces doctors, lawyers and teachers, Tougaloo never attracted the enrollment, money or prestige afforded such other black institutions as Howard University - which has an endowment of more than $300 million and more than 10,000 students.
But Hogan, herself a Tougaloo alumna, and the chairman of Tougaloo's board of trustees, Leroy Walker Jr., believe a visit from a former president confers a seal of approval and a status from which Tougaloo can benefit.
"For a small black college, this will do volumes from the standpoint of public relations," said Walker, who owns 21 franchised McDonald's restaurants. "We are proud that President Clinton hasn't forgotten that these are the kinds of institutions that make a difference to regular people."
C.J. Lawrence, a graduating senior and student government association president who expects to meet the former president on Sunday, said Tougaloo students can relate to Clinton because he was in office in the 1990s.
"I was one election away from being able to vote for him," the 22-year-old said. "He's a president of our lifetime. We got to see him grow just as we grew."
Tougaloo is no stranger to high-profile visitors. Last year's commencement speaker was former Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan, a powerful Washington lawyer who drew a record crowd of 5,000. This year, Tougaloo sent out more than 10,000 graduation invitations.
The school will set out 7,000 chairs on the campus green. But since the ceremony is open to the public as well as alumni, school officials are bracing for thousands more to attend.
Workers have planted shrubs along the route Clinton may take when he arrives Sunday, and they plan to put up large banners welcoming him. Even Hogan's on-campus house has received a landscaping makeover.
"You see how it is right now - it's calm and quiet," Tougaloo spokesman Chip Washington said as he walked across the campus last week. "But picture how it's going to be on May 18. Mass hysteria."
U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (search), a Tougaloo alumnus who helped bring the Aug. 13 Democratic debate to the campus, said all the attention also could help turn the struggling college around.
"This is Tougaloo's time to shine, no doubt about it," he said.