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Wilson proud of Norfolk State’s “X” factor – Norfolk State University president Dr. Harrison B. Wilson

His grandfather on
his father’s side was a
tenacious Virginia slave
Who fought in the Civil
War, first for the
Confederacy and the Union
Army. His grandmother on his mother’s
side was educated at Wilberforce
University and taught in a one-room
schoolhouse in Kentucky.

Dr. Harrison B. Wilson says his
roots and his upbringing shaped him as
a fighter and proponent of education. In July, Wilson will
step down as president of Norfolk State University in Norfolk.
Virginia, after twenty-two years. He says he hopes his retirement
will give him more time to spend with his five grandchildren.

Despite two years remaining on his contract, the outgoing
sixty-eight-year-old president said his grandchildren — who range
in age from one to eleven — were growing up without really
knowing him. He doesn’t want to miss out on spending time the
same way he did with his own six children. And the deaths of
some friends helped Wilson realize his own mortality.

“I said `My God, you can’t take anything with you. I don’t
know my children that well,'” he recalls. “It was just time
and age and children and family” that led to his retirement.
Wilson, who is paid $132,600 a year, begins a one-year paid
sabbatical July 1. He plans to work on his memoirs — for which
the consummate storyteller is saving his best tales — travel,
and write essays on urban problems, perhaps as a newspaper
columnist. He leaves a rich legacy at the sixty-two-year-old
historically Black institution.

Norfolk State University — which was Norfolk State College
until 1979 — has gone through many changes since Wilson took over
the reins. The annual budget has grown from $14 million to $86
million. Enrollment has increased from 6,700 to 8,100 students.
The number of faculty and staff has grown from 377 to 412, with a
current student-faculty ratio of 22-1. The university has also
added fourteen buildings and acquired fifty-one acres of land.

Despite Norfolk State’s low graduation rate — 22 percent of
students graduate in seven years, according to the state of Virginia
(a figure that university officials challenge) — NSU has maintained
an open admissions policy to give low-achieving students from
poor public schools an opportunity to further their education. The
university has expanded the number of bachelor’s degree programs
from thirty-three to forty-four, and its master’s degree
programs have swelled from two to fifteen.

It began its first doctoral program in social
work two years ago. Graduates of its
Dozoretz National Institute for Minorities
in Applied Sciences program — an intense,
nationally competitive honors program
— are among a budding crop of young Black
scientists, engineers and chemists.

“Norfolk State University has been here
for more than sixty years educating and
positively impacting the quality of life for
tens of thousands of people. It didn’t start
with me. There were two great leaders before
me,” Wilson says. “As I leave, my hope and
expectation is to see my successor take up
the torch and keep this university on its
march towards continued success and overall

Pride and Progress

When Wilson was growing up as one of
a few Blacks in a small upstate New York
town, he wanted to become whatever he saw
on television: a cowboy, a truck driver, a
policeman. But his relationship with John T.
Williams — who had been a mentor to Wilson
at Kentucky State before becoming president
of Maryland State College, now known as the
University of Maryland-Eastern
Shore — shaped his desire to become a college

“When [Williams] became a president, I
said, `That’s what I want to be,'” says Wilson,
adding that Williams’s accomplishment gave
him the confidence to pursue similar interests.
“I said, `Shoot, I see these guys becoming
presidents, I know I can be a president.'”
Wilson’s solid work ethic began early in
his life. His first job was shining shoes
as a seven-year-old boy in Amsterdam, New
York. A conversation with his mother that
same year, he said, gave him the first sense of
his identity.

“I came home one day and asked my
mother, `What am I?'” recalls Wilson. “She sat
me down and told me about my grandfather….
That gave me a certain amount of pride [that I
would carry for] the rest of my life.” That
pride took on a special meaning when family
members told him that he was just like his

In 1975, Wilson, who has a doctorate in
health sciences, applied for the presidency at
troth Norfolk State and Kentucky State, his
alma mater. He was a finalist for both jobs,
but Norfolk State made the first offer.
Previously, he had been a basketball coach,
a professor and an administrator at Jackson
State, Tennessee State and Fisk universities.
“This as a bigger city — more potential
for growth,” Wilson says of Norfolk. “This
was the best deal in the long run.”p
At six-feet-four, 250 pounds, Wilson’s
powerful physical presence is overshadowed
only by his commanding nature. His
charismatic yet folksy style and his
overflowing crop of good tales have charmed
friends and colleagues. Unlike other college
presidents, he has faced little public criticism
from the faculty and staff despite his
hands-on style. He has a reputation for ruling
with an iron fist, delegating little and involving
himself in university matters small and large.

“We have better-prepared students,” says
Wilson. “I’m proud of my relationship with
the political aspects of the state [and] the
progress of the faculty. They’ve been steady
and hardworking. The student body loves me.
The administrative staff has worked their
hearts out.”

Politically Astute

One of Virginia’s most senior college
presidents, Wilson has championed NSU’s
cause throughout the state, working with
governors and general assemblies to acquire
more money — and stature — for the public
university. His defining moment, he and
observers agree, came during the late 1970s
when he staved off an attempt to merge
Norfolk State with predominantly white Old
Dominion University, which is also located in
Norfolk. A federal mandate called for either
merging the schools or switching academic
programs between schools. Wilson insisted
that NSU was a cultural center of the
community. The merger never happened and
now 18 percent of NSU’s student population
is not Black. His wife, Lucy Wilson, is a
retired associate vice president for student
services at ODU.

“We decided both schools should be
independent,” he says. “We’re both strong.”
At Wilson’s retirement announcement, he
reflected on his tenure at Norfolk State.
Pointing to an NSU graduate whom he
described as a country gal from Emporia,
Wilson said that students like Tracey
Holoman “give me inspiration.” Holoman had
continued her education when she left NSU
and, last year, received a doctorate in chemical
engineering from the University of Maryland.

“We give kids the kind of confidence to
go anywhere else and fit in a very tough
situation,” Wilson bragged. “Evidently, there’s
an `X’ factor they don’t get at other
schools: That’s confidence [and] tender
loving care.”

Wilson’s tenacity won him support in
Richmond — even if it irritated the politicians
and bureaucrats he dogged. He has helped
NSU grow into “probably one of the
strongest historically Black universities
in the United States,” according to Gordon K.
Davies, director of the State Council of Higher

“I don’t know if he played football, but if
he did, he played the single wing — four yards
and a cloud of dust. And he ran another four
yards. He just doesn’t give up,” Davies told
The Virginian-Pilot following Wilson’s retirement

Davies and Wilson have clashed over
NSU’s academic standards. The state has
pushed the university to be more selective
in its admission policies to increase its
graduation rate. As a result, NSU plans to
strengthen its admissions requirements this
year. And the university has recently added
counseling and tutoring programs to assist
students. But Davies still questions whether
enough has been done. Wilson responds that
because many students were weak performers
in high school, or attended substandard
schools, or may have come from
lower-income families and have had to take
time off to work to pay for tuition, NSU
shouldn’t he compared to other schools.

“Our legislators, and especially the
African American legislators, should be very
conscious of these schools and should give
full political support to them,” advises
Wilson. “Some states are doing it and some
aren’t. If you don’t use your political power,
you don’t get the money. There’s no justice in

Said Virginia State Sen. Stanley Walker,
D-Norfolk, who noted Wilson’s determination
when the retiring president thought the
legislature had shortchanged Norfolk State:
“He’s like a pit bull. Everyone seems to like
that about him. Harrison won’t let go. He’ll
stay here [until] the end.”

Faculty members praise Wilson for the
impact he’s had on state politicians. In
February, Wilson was honored with a
proclamation by the Virginia State Legislature
for his service to the university.
“He has been able to maneuver the
political waters to get things for the
university,” said Elsie Barnes, dean
of the School of Social Sciences and a
twenty-three-year veteran at NSU. Barnes
pointed to the lean fiscal times for colleges
and universities in Virginia under the
administration of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder
and said. “The president took us through
those times admirably well.”

“In Love With This Darn Place”

The faculty also supports Wilson’s
commitment to lower-achieving students,
even in the face of tougher admissions

“It would be unwise to abandon our
mission to be a second-chance institution
for students who blossom late,” said
Barnes, who praises Wilson for laying a
solid foundation for enhanced graduate
programs and the university’s
endowment — areas that she says now
need to be expanded.

Wilson is continuing to work on major
projects. One of his current efforts is a
30,000-seat stadium being built in
preparation for NSU’s entry into Division I
athletics. Among his other aspirations are a
new business school, a sports science
complex, increased doctoral programs, and
an urban institute to deal with problems of
urban decay. As NSU’s president, he has
pushed for improvements in the Central
Brambleton neighborhood where Norfolk
State is located. Wilson says that if he were
a politician, his platform would be to work
with universities to solve community

However, one of Wilson’s greater
disappointments is that he was unable to
add a university hotel to the campus. “I
could see some day, looking just as good as
the rest of our campus, this fine hotel.”

He has served on the boards of
directors for NationsBank and Bell
Atlantic — for eighteen years each — as
well as for the National Conference of
Christians and Jews. He was a founding
member of the Tidewater Urban League and
he served as co-chairman of a committee
that investigated a Greekfest student riot
in Virginia Beach in 1989.

Wilson, who says he often thought
that he would die on the job, wants to be
remembered as a fighter and a person who
stuck with his beliefs — in young African
Americans, and in education as the solution
to community problems.

“I could’ve had bigger schools. I fell in
love with this darn place,” he says. “There
was always some excitement. I hope [my
retirement] isn’t the end of a relationship….
I’m staying here [in the area]. You can’t
beat the people. I plan to spend the rest of
my life here.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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