Year round, the Virgin Islands are a popular destination spot for thousands of vacationing tourists from across the world. But amid its sandy beaches and gorgeous palm trees, educational leaders here say that the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) — which is the only university outside the continental United States designated as a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) — has for too long operated under the radar screen.
Even the university’s current president, Dr. David Hall, concedes that not too long ago, he was woefully ignorant about UVI’s storied history until he decided to apply for the presidential post.
“I was not aware that there was an HBCU on the Virgin Islands,” says Hall, who became the fifth president of UVI in 2009. “Part of my goal has been to help the institution become better known nationally.”
And by most accounts, he’s done precisely that.
Although the overall enrollment at UVI has consistently gone down (a challenge that besets most HBCUs), in his four years as the head of the Virgin Islands’ lone college, Hall has improved retention and graduation rates while making it his personal business to introduce and help shepherd Black males through the college experience.
“We were at 25 percent when I arrived, and we’re now at 31 percent,” Hall says of the number of Black men now enrolled at the university, which boasts an overall student population of 2,455 male and female students. “I’m not satisfied with that, but it is an improvement.”
For Hall, who may be beginning to think about his legacy, his advocacy for Black males will certainly rank high on his list.
And the opportunity to carry out that legacy has been initiated with the recent completion of negotiations with the school’s board of trustees for an 11 percent salary increase and a five-year contract.
When a group of Black male students at UVI formed an organization several years ago called “Brothers with a Cause” to help recruit, retain and graduate other Black males from UVI, Hall quickly embraced their efforts.
The college has also created various initiatives for junior and high school boys across the island, including hosting an annual “Man Up” conference that brings nearly 3,000 boys to the university’s two campuses on St. Thomas and St. Croix.
Last October, UVI was the host site for the second annual International Colloquium on Black Males in Education convened by Dr. Jerlando F. L. Jackson, the Vilas Distinguished Professor in Higher Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“We’re doing something about a problem everyone knows exists,” says Hall, who came of age in segregated Savannah, Ga., and went on to earn degrees at Kansas State University, University of Oklahoma and Harvard Law School. “We have been able to send a positive message to these young boys that there is another way. The conference has had a tremendous impact on the psyche of these young men.”
After several decades in academe, during which he’s held powerful administrative positions at various colleges and universities, Hall appears most comfortable helping to improve UVI’s standing on the international stage.
“It’s a wonderful fit between my personal values and my past,” says Hall, who most recently was the dean and the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Northeastern University in Boston. “This job feels more like a calling and that adds to the value.”
During his short tenure, the soft-spoken leader, who earns $350,000 per year and was recently awarded a $35,000 per year increase in pay, has at times clashed with faculty members who have accused the administration of paying its faculty low wages.
“Since he became president, enrollment has gone down,” notes Dr. Joseph Gaskin, president of the American Association of University Professors UVI Chapter. “So, on what basis did he get the 11.11 percent raise?”
Gaskin says that faculty has been operating without a contract for the past seven years and is burdened by heavy teaching loads.
But Alex Moorhead, who chairs UVI’s board of trustees, says that he’s been impressed by Hall’s vision.
“President Hall’s job performance has been rated by the board as exceptional for four consecutive years as the result of his setting and achieving high goals and serving as an excellent ambassador for the university,” says Moorhead. “The board of trustees looks forward to President Hall’s continued exceptional service as the chief executive officer of the university as the institution proceeds on the pathways to greatness.”
V.I. Senator Clarence Payne says that he’s impressed by Hall’s accomplishments.
“Under his leadership, I see favorable things happening for the university,” says Payne. “He’s been a solid leader, particularly in addressing the economic distress issues that face the territory.”
Student leaders have largely expressed their support for Hall, saying that he is a visible presence on both the St. Thomas and St. Croix campuses. Many applaud his efforts in authorizing the creation of a new radio station — WUVI — which was launched last year.
“I feel that under his leadership, the university is [in] an excellent position to be globally competitive,” says Shawn Seabrooks, 34, a communications student from St. Kitts & Nevis. “We’ve shown that we can compete and handle the big boys.”
With limited resources and a small faculty and staff, Hall has also been able to do what most thought was nearly impossible — convince donors to invest in the college. He’s captured the attention of investors like entrepreneur Kiril Sokoloff, who recently donated $5 million to the university to support student entrepreneurship efforts on campus.
UVI now has a minor in entrepreneurship, and thanks to Sokoloff’s gift, Hall was able to recruit Dr. Timothy L. Faley from the University of Michigan to serve as the school’s first endowed chair in entrepreneurship.
Determined to help students launch their own businesses, UVI officials have used some of Sokoloff’s money to begin an
annual competition where teams of students work with faculty to develop a viable business initiative. The top three teams are awarded $60,000 as seed money to pursue their enterprising idea.
“Part of my goal is to give people the license to dream again and to help put the university on the path to greatness,” says Hall. “I think there is a sentiment that we can’t have this economy rest exclusively on tourism.”
As other HBCUs are struggling, UVI is building.
In 2012, the university opened a 100-bed residence hall and hopes to break ground on a new multipurpose facility on the St. Croix campus. A new major in hospitality and tourism management has been established and will offer its first doctoral program in the next two to three years. UVI’s endowment is $34 million.
Alumni giving, the highest of any HBCU, is now at 51 percent.
“We’ve really created a historic achievement,” says Hall, who notes that when he arrived, only 6 percent of alums gave back to the university. “It says a lot about our alumni and how they feel about our institution. I’m extremely proud of what we’ve been able to do.”
As most college presidents are dashing off to meetings on their respective campuses, Hall is boarding a C-plane from St. Thomas every Wednesday to make the short flight to UVI’s St. Croix campus. There he holds office hours and visits with students and staff.
“I am responsible for both campuses and I have to have a presence on both campuses because we are really one university,” says Hall. “I really feel as if I am getting an exposure to the diversity of the Virgin Islands from a geographic and cultural standpoint. I’ve been very happy here.”