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The Long View

June 2017

By Clementine Cone

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Successful leadership requires a careful balance of looking
back and leaning forward.

For William R. Harvey, being president of Hampton University, Hampton, Va., isn’t a job, but a way of life. He has been at the helm of this historically black university for the past 39 years. In part because of his long tenure at Hampton, Harvey has been and remains a staunch advocate for America’s HBCUs. In this interview with Business Officer, Harvey discusses the importance of developing a strong leadership core no matter your career or life path.

Which of the principles that you outline in your recently published book, Principles of Leadership, do you consider most critical to a leader’s success? 

I am a teacher at heart. I taught junior high, high school, and college; and so I believe strongly in the value of trying to teach, lead, guide, and counsel others. My motivation in writing this book was to provide a handbook of sorts for those seeking the tools and insights to become more effective leaders, no matter their chosen career path or discipline. The principles I present are the ones that have guided me throughout my presidency at Hampton University. I can’t identify only one that is most important, because all of them are critical—whether it’s vision, team building, work ethic, innovation, good management, fairness, or the courage of one’s convictions. And, results do count. You may have a great work ethic, but at some point you have to achieve something.

What are some of the accomplishments that you would like to highlight from your presidency? 

When I first became president of Hampton 39 years ago, we had a $29 million endowment, and we have grown that to $270 million. We’ve introduced 65 new degree-granting programs, including eight new doctoral programs. Our Proton Therapy Institute treats dozens of patients each day with prostate, breast, lung, ocular, pediatric, head, neck, and brain cancers.

Hampton’s faculty in atmospheric sciences have joined with NASA in launching four NASA-funded satellites, the latest of which is attached to the International Space Station. Last year, Hampton helped install a NASA-funded $5 million Direct Broadcast Antenna in downtown Hampton that allows our students and faculty researchers to be involved in providing real-time information to the National Weather Service, military, and media outlets regarding severe weather events in the Hampton Roads area, using technology that rivals what most meteorologists across the country can access. So, we are not content doing small things. We’re doing some monumental things that are improving the world in which we live.

Now, I personally don’t know anything about launching satellites or treating cancer, but I have great ideas about pursuing those ambitious goals and the wherewithal to find and hire people to make them a fait accompli, and I could not be more proud of Hampton’s faculty members.

Looking ahead, what new accomplishments have you set your sights on?

Hampton University will turn 150 in 2018, and we are preparing to launch a $150 million campaign. A major priority of the campaign is to raise scholarship money for students, since finances are a major reason why young people don’t continue through graduation.

Another related aspect of the campaign that we are very excited about is a new student success center for undergraduates that will provide supportive resources for academic success, persistence, retention, and graduation. All undergraduates will be tracked throughout their enrollment to evaluate their progress. The center will offer counseling services and academic support services to help students address learning challenges and match them with the resources and the courses they need to excel. We see the student success center as key to achieving another goal we have, and that is to increase our graduation rate from the current 65 percent to 85 percent, and increase our freshmen retention rate from 78 percent to 85 percent over a six-year period.

Another priority that I have set for Hampton within the next five years is for at least 50 percent of our students to have some kind of study abroad experience. And we have, in fact, already raised funds to provide stipends for every student who wants to study abroad.

In addition to student success, is there some measure by which you assess institutional success? 

You can determine the strength of any higher education institution based on several key factors. Finances certainly play a critical role. I believe that every institutional success emanates from a strong financial base. You simply must have adequate funds for student scholarships and resources for faculty salaries, new infrastructure development, and for the upkeep of the physical plant.

Before I became president, Hampton hadn’t balanced its budget in a decade. During my interview for the presidency 40 years ago, I told the board that if I were selected, I would run Hampton like a business to advance the university’s educational objectives. And that’s what we’ve done. Since I have been president, we have balanced Hampton’s budget every year, because I have insisted on it and because each of the four chief business officers who have served since I’ve been here have all been great. We’ve always taken our fiscal responsibility as an institution very seriously and placed a spotlight on the role that finances play in the learning process. And today, Hampton has a reputation for being one of the most business-savvy and fiscally strong institutions anywhere.

Of course strong academic programming is likewise essential for institutional success. Last year, we received about 20,000 applications for 1,000 positions in our freshman class, and we ended up accepting 1,400 students. Good governance is another crucial aspect of success, as is good management of personnel across the board. Even in our academic hiring, we look for good managers.

You graduated from Talladega College, located in Alabama. How did attending an HBCU shape your decisions and inform your perspectives?

My parents were my first important role models. I also went to a very good private boarding school called Southern Normal School where the teachers pushed us hard. One of my teachers suggested I consider Talladega, and soon after I turned 16, I headed there for college. I remember that the instructors really cared about us. They would stay after class or meet with us in the evenings in the student union to go over assignments. I know from personal experience how this aided my learning process, which is why I feel strongly about the need for professors to do more of this kind of thing today.

You’ve touched on some of the great academic and research initiatives going on at Hampton. Overall, how would you characterize the state of HBCUs today in terms of their financial viability and strength of mission? 

First, I don’t think there is a single HBCU status or culture. Our institutions do not represent a monolith, in the same way that majority institutions are not a monolith. Some of our HBCU institutions are strong financially and academically, some are not as strong, and most are likely somewhere in the middle. There is no question that HBCUs make significant contributions to the educational and economic fabric of this country, but there really is no single formula for success, so one has to look at each individual institution to determine its strengths.

Now, I am a strong proponent of comparing institutions with other like institutions, but I’m not talking about comparing Hampton to other HBCUs or minority-serving institutions. Any objective analysis will show that Hampton is one of the best modest-size universities in the country, not only one of the best modest-size HBCUs. In my judgment, we must continue to compete against peer schools of our size. Hampton is doing that, and I believe we all need to continue to do that.

That said, this is a somewhat precarious time. If you consider the past several years, higher education in general, and HBCUs in particular, have taken some hits from decreased federal funding for student aid, for instance. This means that we have to work harder and smarter. We must continue to be aggressive with our academic and research offerings and with our enrollment and recruitment practices. We have to keep plugging along, being transparent, and letting others know what we’re doing. And this really is true for every higher education institution in the country. We can always do better when it comes to telling our story.

After nearly 40 years at Hampton, what do you consider your greatest achievement and legacy as a higher education leader?

I don’t really think in terms of my legacy, but about trying to make Hampton better. I want people who come along after me to do better than I have done. It is incumbent on all of us to think about leading, guiding, and teaching students. That’s what we have focused on at Hampton, and we have excelled in many areas as I have mentioned—curing cancer, exploring the atmosphere, and training engineers and physicists. Yet, in the midst of all of our success, we are not asleep at the wheel. We’re not simply saying we’re doing well and that’s good enough. We continue to press forward so that our students, faculty, staff, and alumni can be the beneficiaries of all the good that we are doing.

CLEMENTINE CONE, a long-time business officer and a Hampton University alumna, is executive assistant to the president, for university compliance, Norfolk State University, Norfolk, Va.

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