By Reginald Stuart
Richmond Free Press
Special to the New Journal and Guide
Hampton University, one of the nation’s first Historically Black Institutions, was a small struggling four-year college on the banks of the Hampton River near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay when an ambitious, young Dr. William R. “Bill” Harvey Jr. from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama was chosen as president of the institution.
The 1978 gamble on Dr. Harvey, a relative newcomer to higher education administration, became a winner for the son of a building construction contractor and civil rights activist from tiny Brewton, Ala., a rural town between Mobile and Montgomery.
Dr. Harvey, who is set to retire June 30, has served as president of Hampton University for 44 years, far longer than most presidents at other universities. Along the way, the fiscally conservative academician has weathered the pandemic, political upheaval in Washington and Virginia and has managed to amass a $400 million endowment ensuring the future of the institution, not to mention graduating thousands of students now weaving a strong alumni network across the country.
“My mental acuity is as good as it was 50 years ago,” said Dr. Harvey, who prides himself on having glide in his stride and pep in his step at age 81. “My energy level is like it was 50 years ago,” he said in a recent interview, exhorting his perpetual drive despite knee and hip surgery in the last decade.
As he begins his exit, Dr. Harvey touts his forthcoming books that are near completion— one to be issued this spring, the other, this fall—to be followed by a memoir. They will complement his earlier book, “Principles of Leadership: The Harvey Leadership Model,” published in 2016 offering 10 well-defined chapters on leadership, ranging from having a vision and a work ethic to being innovative and fiscally conservative. That book was published by Hampton University Press.
Dr. Harvey’s success as an academic entrepreneur has translated through the years into wealth for him and his family, including 100 percent ownership of a Pepsi-Cola bottling franchise in Houghton, Mich., since the 1970s. He and his wife, Norma, have given more than $10 million to the university, including $1 million to endow a scholarship in honor of his father for Peninsula area students who aspire to become teachers.
The university library is named in Dr. Harvey and his wife Norma’s honor.
The main street to the university has been named in Dr. Harvey’s honor. The university library, which showcases two 20-foot-by 10-foot murals “House of the Turtle” and “Treehouse” by noted artist and educator John T. Biggers, bears the names of Dr. and Mrs. Harvey. There also is a statue in Dr. Harvey’s honor among others that dot Legacy Park on campus celebrating icons of the past.
Participating in the Boy Scouts as a child, Dr. Harvey credits much of what he learned in early life to listening to his mother and father during the days of racial segregation and experiencing that life firsthand. He persevered despite the odds. He earned degrees from Talladega College, Virginia State University and a doctorate in administration at Harvard University before going into university administration at Tuskegee and Fisk universities. Then he made the successful leap to Hampton University.
Being a college president, Dr. Harvey counts among his achievements 38,000 Hampton graduates, many of whom have found great success in various fields. He also notes that under his leadership, 17 Hampton University vice presidents have moved into university presidencies of their own.
Learning to be a president with leadership substance may be considered by outsiders to be among his toughest challenges. He humbly disputes the characterization of “challenges” however, asserting he was trained to do his job, “to be a good leader.”
“I do what I think is right and let the chips fall where they may,” Dr. Harvey said.
Through the years, other universities and institutions have fallen by the wayside as the demands of various accrediting groups became tougher and tougher and private funding diminished along with federal and state aid. Having money in the bank and meeting payroll and other operating expenses year after year was essential, Dr. Harvey said, even if it resulted in making some people unhappy from time to time.
He made his focus leading Hampton, raising money and spending only within limits regardless of a hail of “no’s” from prospective donors over the years.
“He will be remembered as a senior statesman,” said Dr. Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the major national association for accrediting colleges and universities across the South. “He has been able to work with the White House … and build a strong town government relationship,” said Dr. Wheelan, who has served as SACSCOC’s board president for 17 years.
She recalled first meeting Dr. Harvey in the late 1980s when she was chief of the student services office at Thomas Nelson Community College in the Hampton-Newport News area. She later served as Virginia secretary of education under former Gov. Mark R. Warner.
“He’s a salesman,” Dr. Wheelan said of Dr. Harvey, recalling how he has carefully and meticulously grown departments, built the university’s physical plant and student residential facilities and “even started growing presidents before it became fashionable.” She noted his entrepreneurial skills in successfully running an educational institution and how his family and the institution have benefitted.
The Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute, which cost $225 million, opened in 2010 as the eighth such cancer therapy center in the country and the only one in the region. Roughly 20 other centers have opened across the country since then.
Echoing others, Dr. Wheelan lauded Dr. Harvey, noting he has worked for 11 years with numerous U.S. presidents of both political parties, serving as an adviser on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Despite the nation’s economic downturn in the 1990s, he leaped ahead of his colleagues, exploring an idea suggested by some alumni of building a center for a new cancer treatment called “proton therapy.” The therapy was little known to most people at the time, including Dr. Harvey. But he did in depth studies and consulted with Dr. Cynthia Keppel, a widely respected nuclear physicist with many contacts within the medical community.
With Hampton University’s board support, Dr. Harvey sold the idea of a new cancer treatment center to the community and area lenders, did a land swap with the city and got federal and state money. In 2010, he opened the $225 million Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute, which at the time was one of eight such therapy sites in the nation and the only one in the region. The 98,000-square-foot facility with five treatment rooms is staffed with oncologists, and engineers.
Proton therapy is expensive and costs more than other forms of treatment, cancer experts say. But proton therapy is less life-disrupting and the HUPTI can treat a variety of cancers, including breast, prostate, brain, spine, lung, head and neck and pediatric cancer.
At the time the HUPTI opened, Dr. Harvey declared that it would put Hampton in the forefront of institutions involved in health care. Such a move would benefit all patients, Black men in particular, he said, who have a nearly 60 percent higher rate of prostate cancer than white men.
“He is probably one of the greatest university presidents ever, an embodiment of Booker T. Washington,” said Wayne Dawkins, a veteran journalist who formerly taught at Hampton and currently is associate professor of multimedia journalism at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
He said Dr. Harvey “was demanding, while fair at the same time. He didn’t tolerate whining,” Mr. Dawkins said, noting Dr. Harvey never had to remind people that he was president of the institution.
Dr. Harvey, who served three years in the Army in the 1960s and is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, has avoided common strategy errors of many young presidents by “keeping his board informed,” always making his annual budget and filing voluminous and timely status and condition reports to state, federal and industry regulatory agencies, Dr. Wheelan said.
Dr. Harvey carefully speaks his mind, yet quickly declines commenting about other people’s business even if he knows about it. He prides himself on listening, especially to parents and others paying the school’s tuition costs. More than half the institution’s students qualify for federal Pell grants.
Dr. Harvey has always managed to be of the people while above them. He has been active as a local volunteer in the United Way and other broad-based, community efforts in the Hampton area and Eastern Virginia, even as he reached out to help education efforts nationally.
For sure, Dr. Harvey’s stint has been spotted on occasion, marked by student protests and boycotts by faculty and staff. While unsettling from time to time, none of the alerts converted to alarms for the president. He has not hesitated to clear the air and calm tensions in cases of confusion, Hampton observers note. There are numerous examples.
As Hampton University was celebrating the opening of the multimillion-dollar Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications during homecoming week in October 2003, the university had 6,000 copies of the campus newspaper, The Script, seized and destroyed. The newspaper did not include a letter on the front page from Hampton’s acting president at the time, Dr. JoAnn W. Haysbert, offering the university’s response to a report from the city’s health department about an inspection.
The student editors were outraged, calling the action a violation of the students’ First Amendment press freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Dr. Haysbert publicly said the paper was “delayed,” and the university sought to downplay the situation by explaining The Script is considered a “university” newspaper and not a student newspaper.
Later, upon his return to campus, Dr. Harvey told a campus gathering the university would always respect students’ rights to free speech.
In a separate case, students demanded a white professor be fired for allegedly being racist by telling his students to work harder. Upon notification, Dr. Harvey had a meeting with the students involved. As the talk came to an end, Dr. Harvey defended the professor and said he would not be fired.
Dr. Haysbert, who has rolled with Dr. Harvey through the ups and downs during her 28 years at the institution, has served as his top assistant and university provost for more than a decade. She was president of Langston University in Oklahoma for seven years before returning to Hampton.
The list of anecdotes is endless.
Dr. Harvey dismisses occasional negative comments, complaints, investigations and similar things involving Hampton University during his nearly half-century of leadership, noting nothing has materialized from these past incidents and nothing has tarnished Hampton University’s name during his tenure.
“I am a man of character, of truth and trust,” Dr. Harvey said.
In the rare instance of his combatting college accreditation situations, he deals with them quickly and up front. For example, when the Commission on College Nursing Education declined to accredit the Hampton University School of Nursing a few years ago, he addressed the situation quickly. The commission restored the school’s accreditation, which now runs through 2026.
Hampton also is in court challenging the refusal of the Accrediting Council on Pharmacy Education to accredit Hampton University’s School of Pharmacy. The matter is still before the court, while the accrediting council says it decision will not impact Hampton’s “Teach-Out” plan covering classes through 2023. Several people at the Chicago-based council did not return calls or refused to comment about the dispute.
“Doc Harvey has been one of the great academics,” said Brett Pulley, a Hampton University alumnus who previously worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Mr. Pulley, who served on the Hampton board for seven years and as dean of Hampton’s School of Journalism for four years, said Dr. Harvey stands out among the dozens of corporate executives he has written about over the years.
“To have led a place like Hampton so well, he can absolutely take a bow,” Mr. Pulley said.
This article is reprinted with permission from the Richmond Free Press.