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Wright State president succumbs to cancer – Harley E. Flack

Dayton, Ohio

Dr. Harley E. Flack, the first African American
president of a major metropolitan university in Ohio, died March 29
following five-month battle with cancer. He was fifty-five.

Flack had served as president of Wright State University since
February 1994. His blend of compassion, morality, and vision will
influence WSU well into the next century, university officials said.

Dr. Harley Flack led with his heart and with his spirit,” said
Lynnette Heard, executive assistant to Flack and secretary to WSU’s
board of trustees. “When you experience someone like that, it’s a
once-in-a lifetime opportunity. We are all missing him so very much.”

Flack was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on October 27, 1997, and took a medical leave of absence to fight the disease.

From 1974 to 1987, Flack served as the founding dean and professor
of the College of Allied Health Sciences at Howard University. He later
served as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty
at the State University of New York at Old Westbury.

Flack was the provost and executive vice president at Rowan
University, formerly Rowan College of New Jersey, from 1989 through
1994. In 1992, he played a lead role in securing a $100 million
donation to Rowan.

His arrival at Wright State in February 1994 galvanized the campus,
which had stagnated during the two-and-a-half-year, lame-duck status of
the previous president. In his inaugural address, Flack laid out the
Three C’s” — caring, competence, and collaboration — that would
become the cornerstone of his administration.

The first African American president at the predominantly White
institution, Flack, in his first weeks on the job, received an
anonymous note in the mail threatening to kill him if he tried to turn
Wright State into what the letterwriter called “a nigger school.”
Although it shook Flack and his wife Mignon, nothing ever came of the

In an interview two years later, Flack said, “Racism is still one
of the most forceful phenomena in our society. It drives decisions and
perceptions. [It is] still one of the powerful shapers of opinion in
our society, and I don’t expect it to be different at Wright State or
in Ohio.”

He went on to champion several cultural and racial diversity
initiatives on campus — including a WSU African American Male
Mentoring Program for first-year students, and the implementation of
recommendations by a “campus climate” committee. And in the fall of
1997, the number of African American students increased by 224 from the
previous year. However, those 1,492 Black students still constituted
less than 10 percent of the student body.

Last fall, WSU reversed a six-year enrollment decline with a 1.8
percent increase, raising the number of students attending WSU to
15,334. Additionally, the university boosted the academic quality of
incoming students and lowered the dropout rate of first-year students.

Flack proved very popular with the vast majority of Wright State
students. He became known as a president who would not hesitate- to
strike up informal conversations with students while walking across
campus or eating at restaurants across the street from the university.

“He would talk to anybody and everybody,” said Melanie Glass, a WSU
senior and news editor of the campus newspaper, The Guardian. “He was
not aloof at all, and he was just bursting with energy.”

Flack also loved — and lived — music. He was a talented composer
and accomplished pianist. One of his compositions, “A Nation: All
Families,” was performed at his WSU inauguration. He would later
perform at a conference on the future of African American religion on
campus. Those close to Flack said he took great joy in working on his
music — even during his illness.

Central State University President John Garland said Ohio’s higher
education community “has lost a dynamic and brilliant administrator
with the passing of Dr. Harley Flack. He was a man of great intellect
and extraordinary talent, and I greatly valued the counsel he
unselfishly provided to me in so many areas.”

When some Ohio legislators were seeking last year to close or merge
Central State with another school — such as Wright State, which is
less than ten miles away, or the private Wilberforce University,
located across the street from Central State — Flack stepped forward
and spoke forcefully and eloquently of the importance of historically
Black colleges and universities. Legislators ultimately backed off
their threats and provided state funds for Central State to remain open.

Wilberforce University President Dr. John Henderson called Flack “a
man of great vision” who saw the possibilities and opportunities that
could emerge from the three universities — Wright State, Central
State, and Wilberforce — working together and collaborating on various

“He was a very insightful individual, and very positive as well, ” Henderson said.

In addition to his wife, Flack is survived by their four adult
sons, Harley Flack II, Christopher Flack, Oliver Palmer and Michael
Palmer; and by grandson Christopher Farrar Flack.

At funeral services April 4, Flack’s son, Harley Flack II, held his
father’s shoes high in the air and invited the audience of 900 mourners
to examine their size — rather large for men’s shoes at size 13.

“But they are minuscule compared to the legacy he left,” the son said.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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