WASHINGTON — James E. Cheek, who served as Howard University’s president for 20 years and oversaw major expansions at the school, has died. He was 77.
University spokesman Ron Harris said Cheek died Friday at a hospital in Greensboro, N.C. Cheek died after a long illness, said Tanya Wiley, spokeswoman for Shaw University where Cheek earlier served as president.
Cheek presided over the historically Black Howard University from 1968 to 1989. During that time, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1983.
“Dr. Cheek’s vision and passion for the university and his view of Howard as a national treasure led to bold action, which eventually resulted in a dramatic boost in our budget with increased federal support,” current Howard University President Sidney Ribeau said in a statement.
During Cheek’s tenure, the university’s enrollment increased by 6,000 students, and its budget soared from $43 million to $417 million. The school founded the nation’s first Black-owned public television station, created WHUR radio, established a School of Business and built Howard University Hospital. Cheek also expanded Howard’s divinity and law schools.
Cheek was born Dec. 4, 1932, in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War and went on to earn degrees in sociology, history and divinity from Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., Colgate Rochester University in New York and a Ph.D. from Drew University in New Jersey.
Before coming to Washington, Cheek was president of Shaw University, named to that position at the age of 30. Previously, he was a professor of New Testament theology at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va.
Cheek is survived by his wife, Celestine, two children and four grandchildren.