Dr. Michelle R. Howard-Vital, a seasoned administrator who held leadership positions at institutions in four states — Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Florida — died on Tuesday evening after a long battle with cancer. She was 66.
A native of Chicago, Howard-Vital earned her undergraduate degree in English literature and language and her masters of arts in teaching English from the University of Chicago. Her Ph.D. in public policy analysis was from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
According to her husband Geri, Howard-Vital started teaching at the age of 22. She was an English instructor and director of College Without Walls at Central YMCA Community College. It was in those early years that she reportedly told others that she had fallen in love with teaching and once quipped: “I cannot believe they are paying me so much — $10,000 — to have so much fun.”
A prolific researcher and the author of dozens of articles and book chapters, Howard-Vital held visible academic positions at Harold Washington College, Chicago State University, Edinboro University and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where she earned the rank of full professor.
She also served as associate vice president for academic affairs at the University of North Carolina General Administration and from 2006 until 2007, was the interim chancellor at Winston Salem State University.
In 2007, the Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education unanimously selected her to lead Cheyney University — the nation’s oldest historically Black university.
In 2014, Howard-Vital retired from Cheyney and relocated back to North Carolina. But in 2016, she came out of retirement to become the provost at Florida Memorial University, a historically Black college.
When FMU’s president Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis accepted the presidency at Benedict College in 2017, Howard-Vital was named the interim president.
“My vision is to take that synergy and energy and that connection with faculty to the interim presidency role to see how we can focus on the students,” Howard-Vital told Diverse in an interview last year when she was named to the post. “This is something that really excited me.”
But Howard-Vital took sick leave later that year and was forced to step down from the position. Dr. Castell V. Bryant was appointed interim president and was replaced last month by Dr. Jaffus Hardrick, who has held the current interim post since July 16, 2018.
Artis called Howard-Vital a “servant leader, a collaborative administrator, and brilliant scholar.” She said that her commitment to a quality education was demonstrated through her steadfast support of faculty and her tireless pursuit of excellence in teaching, research and scholarship. “Personally, she was much more than a Sister-President,” said Artis. “She was a wife, mother, daughter, mentor and a friend. She will be missed.”
Howard-Vital was the recipient of numerous accolades including the “Women Cultivating Women Award” given in honor of Mary McLeod Bethune.
“Michelle loved students and firmly believed in the transformative power of higher education for the individual and for the strength of this country,” said Geri Vital. “She preferred leading by example, served as a mentor to many students, and worked tirelessly to maximize students’ potential. She regularly stressed the importance of gaining specialized knowledge and often lamented, ‘We need educators and critical thinkers now more than ever — from all segments of society — if we hope to compete as world leaders.’”
In lieu of flowers, the family ask that contributions to a minority scholarship fund be made in her name to one of the institutions where she worked (University of Chicago, University of Illinois, Chicago State University, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, The University of North Carolina at Wilmington Upperman Scholars, Winston Salem State University, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania or Florida Memorial University).
“Michelle felt strong that current educators should work selflessly and very visible encourage and reward talented young educators in front of their students to both support the critical work they do, and to show the students that teaching is a worthy and desirable career to pursue,” said Geri Vital.