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Following in the Footsteps of Her Father, Dr. Wilma Mishoe Led Delaware State to New Heights

She couldn’t say no. “Higher education,” Mishoe says, “is my natural habitat,” and Delaware State has always been her home. Mishoe returned to historic landmarks still standing tall and took comfort in seeing some of the same trees that stood on campus 50 years ago, throwing off shade like old friends.

On the campus of the historically Black institution in Dover is where Mishoe grew up. And on Dec. 31, 2019, it’s also where she retired as president. 

The career educator was 12 when her father, Dr. Luna I. Mishoe, became president of what was then Delaware State College in 1960. 

In those early years, her family lived alongside the institution’s faculty and administrators on the small, tightknit campus. That sense of community is what made her time there special, says Mishoe. At 14, Delaware State gave Mishoe her first job, working in the dining hall. And in 1967 she left Dover for D.C. to attend the historically Black Howard University.

Mishoe Wilma Portrait Color 2018“There was something special about growing up surrounded by eager students headed off to class each day and listening to the faculty and administrators guiding them,” remembers Mishoe. “That experience led me into my life’s work.”

With advanced degrees from both Howard and Temple University, Mishoe worked at a variety of postsecondary institutions, including Delaware Technical Community College, for 30 years, before retiring in 2010. However, in 2014, Mishoe came out of retirement to be the acting president of Wilberforce University, another HBCU, in Ohio. The next year, she joined the Board of Trustees at Delaware State.

Students and university first

Mishoe went from being elected the institution’s first female chair of the Board of Trustees in 2017 to its first female president in June 2018. Though she was intentional about her tenure as president being short, she was determined to be transformative. 

Her father’s leadership style and values, which she long observed and embraced, became Mishoe’s guide. These were the same ingredients that shaped her mantra, “Students first.”  

Getting started, she says, “I spent much of that first year doing what most good leaders do, assessing, evaluating and observing” university policies and practices. Again, Mishoe credits her father’s example and the man she remembers as “a master teacher and lover of students,” for helping her to prepare for the role. She plotted a course, informed by two basic questions: “What’s best for the students? and what’s best for the university?” 

As the institution’s 11th president, Mishoe focused on customer service, student life, teaching and instruction, athletics, budgeting and accounting. 

Under her leadership, student enrollment at Delaware State reached nearly 5,000, the largest in its 128-year history. Today, though, Mishoe wonders why it took more than a century to reach this rung. During her first year on the job, one of the university’s 10 strategic new hires included an enrollment manager. Mishoe says she wanted to help ensure that the number of students seeking degrees continued to climb. 

Dr. Luna Mishoe was Delaware State’s seventh president and its longest-serving. By the time he retired in 1987, enrollment had mushroomed from 386 to 2,389. He didn’t live long enough, though, to see his college become a university six years later in 1993.

Luna Mishoe’s successor, Dr. William B. DeLauder, led that charge, “knocking on every door in the state” as he successfully made the case for growing the institution to university status, recalls Dr. Wilma Mishoe. 

When Mishoe looks back at her tenure, she counts “huge accomplishments” that she says benefited students and the university. Under her leadership, for example, Mishoe worked to expand a state-sponsored scholarship program that not only put college within reach of some of the most vulnerable high school students in Delaware but increased the number who earned degrees from Delaware State. 

In her first year on the job, Mishoe’s aim was to significantly expand the university’s Aviation Program, the only one of its kind at an HBCU and one of the few in the country to train commercial airline pilots. The expansion included replacing Delaware State’s fleet of aging airplanes with ones that were new and state-of-the art. 

During her tenure, Mishoe also made sure that her campus got more than a facelift. She says she saw to it that the state made good on its commitment to address the university’s backlog of deferred maintenance projects.

“None of the university’s achievements over the past two years would have been possible without the graceful, powerful leadership of this president,” Dr. Tony Allen said in a statement when Mishoe retired. Allen was the provost at Delaware State when he succeeded Mishoe as president. 

“She carries a legendary last name,” Allen added, “but she is her own powerhouse and will forever be the grand dame of Delaware State University.”

Retirement in the new normal

Mishoe stepped down as president last December, just as a novel coronavirus was emerging. And like many, even those in the scientific community, she couldn’t predict the outbreak or its widespread impact. But today, Mishoe looks back at the steps she and the university took in 2018 that unwittingly helped to prepare them for teaching and learning during a pandemic. 

She was charged then with shepherding plans to make Delaware State “completely digital by 2020.” Mishoe got a Dr Mishoe 1 E1593017321475head start on the technology initiative that included making “leading-edge instructional technology” available campus-wide and providing free iPads and MacBooks for every student and faculty member. Since COVID-19 brought in-person classes to an abrupt halt in March 2020 and now threatens the start of a new fall semester, Mishoe declared that those early efforts to usher in online learning were right on time. Then, like now, she says it’s important to give students the tools to study and learn when and where they want. 

At 70, Mishoe has again stepped out of retirement. And so far, she has been true to her word: “I am far from done.”  Just months after leaving office, she is back serving on Delaware State’s Board of Trustees — assuming a familiar role in times made uncertain by a pandemic. 

In the age of COVID-19 and amid a new normal, Mishoe admits, “learning to be different and do things differently won’t come easy,” and that includes helping Delaware State plan how it can safely re-open or teach and connect with its students wherever they are.     

This article originally appeared in the June 25, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.

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