Shortly after Dr. Haywood L. Strickland announced his retirement from Wiley College — after 18 years at the helm — trustee Patsy Ponder and her husband, Gene, gave the small, historically Black college in Marshall, Texas an unrestricted gift of $2 million.
The Ponders, who owned Master WoodCraft Cabinetry in Marshall before selling the company earlier this year, gave the donation to Wiley in honor of Strickland.
“The Ponders have always given from their hearts, and their philanthropy has been most purposeful,” says Strickland. “Their generosity reflects the John Wesleyan ideals of Methodism — ‘do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can.’[”
Strickland, who has led Wiley since 2000, was humbled by the philanthropic gift.
“They’re great people who have been a part of Wiley’s growth for the last seven years,” says Strickland, adding that Patsy has been a trustee who was “always engaged, always open, and always asking tough questions, ensuring that we were on the right path.”
It was not the first time Strickland had secured a large gift for the college that came to international fame in 2007 with the release of the blockbuster movie “The Great Debaters” that featured actor Denzel Washington. The movie chronicled the school’s debate team and its coach, professor and poet Melvin Toldson, who went on to become national debate champions by defeating the debating team at University of Southern California (although Harvard University is depicted as the competitor in the movie).
Shortly after the movie came out, Washington met with Strickland and asked what he could do to help the institution, which was founded in 1878 and is affiliated with the United Methodist Church.
“I told him that we needed a million dollars — $100,000 a year over 10 years — to restart the forensic society,” says Strickland, adding that Washington provided the funds and the debate society was renamed in honor of Toldson and Washington. Earlier this year, the two-time Academy Award winner pledged to renew the $1-million gift to continue funding the debate program.
Strickland says that since the rebirth of the debate program, the team has earned more than 3,000 awards and has twice won the Overall Sweepstakes Championship and the Individual Events Sweepstakes Championship of the Pi Kappa Delta National Comprehensive Tournament — a prestigious debate competition that Toldson’s teams were not allowed to take part in during the 1930s.
“We determined we would include debate in all of our activities, both in and outside of the classroom,” says Strickland in an interview with Diverse. “We changed the dynamic and included debate across the curriculum.”
The movie, Strickland says, really trained a focus on a “seminal time in our history” and has “germinated a whole new concept in debate.”
In addition to jumpstarting the forensic society, Strickland says that the school’s choir has won international acclaim, including performances at the White House in 2011 and 2013 and recording on the soundtrack of “Birth of a Nation,” a movie directed by Nate Parker, one of the actors from “The Great Debaters.”
When Strickland arrived, Wiley College had only about 500 students. Today, the school boasts a student population of more than 1,400.
“Enrollment growth has been very crucial,” says Strickland. “With limited resources, our institution is tuition-driven, so enrollment is needed.”
In addition to growing the student population, Strickland has been praised with refurbishing the campus, focusing on infrastructure issues and strengthening and enhancing the school’s academic programs. He spearheaded improvements of 300 buildings on campus and presided over the construction of the $2.4-million Julius S. Scott Sr. Chapel and the $14-million, 500-bed center that was named in his honor and opened in 2012.
“Of course, we have been technologically driven and making that conducive to learning,” says Strickland. “I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do.”
During his tenure, the college’s accreditation was reaffirmed to the year 2023 with no recommendation. He also led the college to earn specialized accreditation of its business programs by the Accreditation Council for Business Schools Programs.
Strickland’s pathway to the presidency was hardly traditional. Becoming a president “was not one of the things on my scale to do,” says Strickland.
Growing up in Memphis, Strickland had set his sights on the law.
“I thought about law and theater,” he says. “My early connection was fueled by Thurgood Marshall. At that time, you could do more in the courtroom than in the field.”
He graduated from Stillman College in Alabama and earned a master’s and Ph.D. In American History from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Strickland began advocating for HBCUs as a result of his work with associations such as the United Negro College Fund, the United Board for College Development and the Southern Association for Colleges and Schools. Prior to assuming the reigns at Wiley, Strickland was president at Texas College, at a time when it was losing accreditation.
“He spent six years working to restore it and to this day, no institution that has lost SACSCOC accreditation had it restored except for Texas College, absent of a lawsuit,” says Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University. “This means he led the complete transformation of the school so that it could meet the standards of accreditation.”
In March, more than 15 current and former HBCU presidents paid tribute to Strickland, who says that he’s retired to Georgia from his 9-5 job. “But I’m not retired from an engagement with higher education or HBCUs,” he adds, speaking to Diverse from a recent conference of college administrators. “I want to ensure that these institutions continue to be viable.”
Strickland says that working with his board has been a highlight of his tenure at Wiley. He has not encountered resistance, as some college presidents have faced.
“You have to have a board that is informed, engaged and willing to learn how to be a board,” says Strickland. “It’s a growth process. It takes a team to run a school.”
Several years ago, he began talking with the Wiley board of trustees about a succession plan and identifying a replacement. The board selected Dr. Herman Felton, who was president of Wilberforce, to lead Wiley forward.
“I think he will be an excellent college president,” says Strickland, who has known Felton across the years. “I am very pleased with the selection. I’ve followed his career and I think it’s just time for us to give an opportunity to a younger generation, who can bring new energy, new insight to the college.”
Looking back, Strickland says that the presidency of Wiley is a job that he will forever cherish.
“My resume and ambition was not to be a Black college president,” he says, adding that he had no idea that he would remain at the college for 18 years. “But we got there. And each year, I had a new challenge and before I knew it, I looked up and it was 18 years,” he says within a chuckle.
This article appeared in the June 28 issue of Diverse magazine. It is one in a series of articles about retiring college presidents that will run over the next week.