Editorial: Big changes for Hampton Roads’ HBCUs

The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board, The Virginian-Pilot

Hampton Roads is fortunate to be the home of two historically Black universities, schools which last week made announcements that promise to change the landscape of higher education in the Tidewater.

At Hampton University, Dr. William Harvey announced he would step down as president in June 2022, completing a remarkable 44 years at the helm of that school at the time of his retirement. Since he stepped into that role, it’s not hyperbole to say that Harvey transformed the university, the region and the commonwealth.

Since he took over HU in 1978 — the school was then known as Hampton Institute — the influence of the once well-regarded school was in decline. Harvey reversed that with so small amount of effort, strategy, thoughtful decision making and sheer force of will.

The school’s enrollment, endowment, footprint and national reputation have all grown under Harvey’s watch, which today finds him as one of the longest serving university presidents in the country. His advocacy on behalf of his school and for the betterment of the region has moved mountains.

There will be no shortage of high-caliber candidates to replace him, vying to lead Hampton into the next era of its growth and development, and the commonwealth should consider itself fortunate that there is ample time for that process to unfold, raising the likelihood of a seamless transition from one administration to the next.

Across the water, Norfolk State University had an important announcement of its own last week.

NSU officials said the school had received a gift of $40 million from MacKenzie Scott, the novelist, financier and philanthropist, the largest donation in the school’s 85-year history.

That generosity comes on the heels of a $30 million donation Scott made to Hampton University in July and comes as part of a sweeping effort by the billionaire to distribute her fortunate to a variety of institutions, groups and organizations working to address systemic inequality and mitigate the effect of the coronavirus crisis.

Central to that effort are donations to HBCUs, which put NU and NSU on the receiving end of her generosity. Both schools described their donations as transformational, and it’s easy to see why.

At Hampton, the school said Harvey would determine how best to use the funds, with “the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute ... new student scholarships geared to assist high school students who have demonstrated strong character and a yearning for higher education; and further support of the University’s technological advances and upgrades to scientific laboratories” among the options.

For Norfolk State, the influx comes as the school plans “a major capital campaign to fortify our strategies for enhancing our endowment, increasing student scholarship opportunities, and pursuing workforce and economic development activities to enhance the lives of our future leaders, the city of Norfolk and the Hampton Roads region,” per a university release.

In both cases, the donations will bolster these invaluable institutions, helping strengthen their efforts to make a distance in the lives of students, forge the next generation of leaders, and help solidify the region a center for higher education.

But it means more today, coming after a summer when America’s persistent problems with racial injustice and systemic inequality moved to the center of public discussion. As Scott said in making these gifts, schools such as Hampton and Norfolk State are working to tackle these problems head-on.

In blog posts announcing her donations, Scott made a point of stating the money comes without strings — that these schools are to decide for themselves how those resources can be applied to greatest effect. She wants to support these institutions, not direct them, and one marvels at such a selfless approach.

These announcement — a change in leadership, an influx of funding — represent enormous developments for Hampton Roads’ HBCUs. As we close the book on a difficult year, we should find hope in the promise of a brighter future on both campuses in the months and years to come.