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At Delaware State, a New Day Has Dawned

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Day after day, 4,000-plus Delaware State University students—about two-thirds of them black and many the first in their families to attend college—attend classes on a campus built on fields where slaves once toiled.

That is but one of the paradoxes and ironies that abound at an institution striving to thrust forward while remaining true to its past.

The oldest structure on the Dover campus, Loockerman Hall, believed to have been erected in the late 1700s, was the centerpiece of what was once a 600-acre plantation. When the new college was established in 1891, Loockerman Hall served as its main building. Now used primarily for special events, the Georgian mansion offers a stark contrast to the glistening OSCAR Building, home to the Optical Science Center for Applied Research, where students help faculty members who are involved in a growing array of sophisticated research projects, many funded by the federal government.

Delaware State, currently ranked 13th among the nation’s 105 historically black colleges and universities by U.S. News & World Report, has a stronger reputation outside the state than it does at home, says Harry L. Williams, the university’s 10th president.

In that context, “Our goal is to be, first, one of the best universities,” Williams says.

Williams is steadily moving the university forward, driving progress on two distinct fronts: building support for those low-income, first-generation students and strengthening its reputation for high-quality research in the sciences.

“President Williams could be a university president anywhere in the country,” says Orlando J. George Jr., former president of Delaware Technical Community College. “I’m surprised and pleased for Delaware and for Delaware State that the institution has been able to hold on to him. “He’s got focus. He’s got vision. He’s got an extremely high EQ [emotional intelligence]. He’s a builder of bridges. All of that is reflective of his tenure.”

 

But the university faced uncertainty when Williams took over as president in 2010.

The five-year tenure of Allen Sessoms, a sometimes abrasive leader, was marked with controversy. When he resigned in 2008, Claibourne Smith, president of the board of trustees, served as acting president for 16 months.

Williams, having served 10 years in management positions at universities in North Carolina, arrived at Delaware State just before Sessoms departed, taking over as provost and vice president for academic affairs. A year and a half later, he was named president.

As he prepared to take office, one of Williams’ first moves was to reach out to George. “I said to him, ‘You made it. I want to know your secrets.’ And he embraced me.”

George recalls giving Williams two pieces of advice during their first meeting: raise as much money as possible to support the university’s students and faculty, and surround yourself with the best possible leadership team.

Indeed, Williams was president for less than six months when he persuaded the General Assembly to enact the DSU Inspire Scholarship program. Inspire provides grants of up to $3,000 a year to graduates of Delaware high schools who have a 2.75 grade-point average and maintain that average (and satisfy a few other requirements) while taking 12 or more credits per semester at Delaware State.

While those scholarships have helped increase access for in-state students, who comprise about half the school’s enrollment, a couple of financial measurements have seen significant upticks during Williams’ tenure—indications of his ability to raise funds and of the university’s improved financial stability.

Delaware State’s endowment stood at $20.8 million 10 years ago, dropped to $17.9 million in 2011-12—the result of the recession—then rebounded to $25.5 million at the end of the 2016 fiscal year.

Annual giving to the university has nearly tripled in the past nine years, from $1.8 million in fiscal 2007, to $2.8 million in fiscal 2012 to $4.9 million in fiscal 2016. Alumni donations, long a source of concern, are showing a similar upward trend: 427 donors, a 4 percent participation rate, in fiscal 2007; 540 donors, or 5 percent participation, in fiscal 2012; and 1,149 donors, or 11 percent participation, in fiscal 2016.

Williams has also tried to heed George’s advice to surround himself with high-quality managers. Two administrators he has been leaning on are Donna Covington, who just began her fourth year as dean of the College of Business Administration, and Melissa Harrington, interim assistant vice president for research and director of the Delaware Center for Neuroscience Research.

Delaware State president Harry Williams is motivated by seeing students persevere and succeed.//Photo by Ron Dubick

Melissa Harrington (left) and Donna Covington are two of the key players who are helping president Harry Williams continue to boost Delaware State’s profile.//Photo by Ron Dubick

In August, Tony Allen, a well-regarded civic leader and education advocate, joined Williams’ team as provost, the university’s chief academic officer.

Covington has taken charge of initiatives to boost retention and graduation rates. Harrington plays a key role in securing grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health and in overseeing the research undertaken with those grants.

Covington, a former vice president at Lexmark, a global tech imaging company, has tried to leverage her business experience to improve outcomes for students, especially those who are the first in their families to attend college. Through a partnership with the Gates Foundation, the university has hired additional counselors to work with students from the day they first set foot on campus. They’ve created a process called the Business Education Student Transformation that starts with each student receiving an individual development plan, a four-year roadmap to developing soft skills and connections in addition to completing the courses required to earn a degree.

Covington wants every business student to have a mentor and to have two paid summer internships before they graduate. She has already found 50 alumni and local business leaders to serve as mentors. And, in three years, the number of internships has jumped from 35 to 105. “We have 164 students who qualified for internships—the key criterion is a 3.0 GPA—so we don’t have enough internships for everyone yet,” she says.

Harrington says the university has gained strength and prominence in science research since she arrived on campus 16 years ago. At the time, “only one other faculty member was involved in research, the director of sponsored programs wasn’t even a full-time job, and there was sort of an attitude that research was something the faculty did for fun,” she says.

Now, “Research is critical to what we do, and it has a tremendous impact on outcomes for students.”

A decade ago, for example, Delaware State might have had a graduate accepted into medical or dental school once every second or third year. Now, she says, two or three graduates a year are admitted, and about one-third of the school’s science majors are going directly from graduation into study for advanced degrees.

 

The university currently offers 42 bachelor’s degrees, 16 master’s degrees and five doctoral programs through 21 academic departments in six colleges. It maintains its agricultural heritage through farms near Kenton and Smyrna, and its forward trajectory includes an airway science program based at the Delaware Airpark in Cheswold.

Allen, though he lacks experience as a higher education manager, brings to Delaware State a skill set and connectivity to the state’s power structure that could accelerate the university’s advances. Most recently the vice president in charge of corporate reputation at Bank of America and formerly the head of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, Allen is chairman of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission and a trustee for the University of Delaware. In many respects, Allen says, his work in those positions has been “closely connected to the mission” of Delaware State.

Historically black colleges “need to remain contemporary, with a focus on skill building,” he says. And Delaware State must offer unique opportunities to the state’s residents: providing affordable higher education, meeting the needs of first-generation college students, helping them stay in school and, more broadly, “building a talent pipeline” that can guide young Delawareans through the K-12 system and into Delaware State.

As the university moves forward, one of its newer initiatives also takes it back to its roots. During some of the segregation era, the college operated a high school for students from Kent and Sussex counties. Three years ago, the university renewed its commitment to secondary education by opening its Early College High School in the former Dover Sheraton north of the main campus—an example of the talent pipeline Allen mentioned. This fall, students in grades 10-12 of the charter school will move to the main campus while a Ninth Grade Academy will remain in the old hotel.

The school’s program enables students to take college classes full time in their junior and senior years—“sitting next to bearded people,” school director Evelyn Edney jokes—so they can amass up to two years of college credits by the time they collect their high school diplomas.

Enrollment will max out at about 425 students. So far, most of those enrolled are interested in completing their college studies at Delaware State, Edney says. Credits are transferable, she adds, “and we’ve got some setting their sights on Harvard and other places.”

Meanwhile, in New Castle County, Delaware State sold its downtown Wilmington building a few years ago. It is now offering accelerated master’s degree programs in business, public administration and sports administration and a standard-track master’s in social work in the evening at the former Army Reserve Training Center on Kirkwood Highway. During the day, campus director Valerie Dinkins says, the Red Clay school district will use several classrooms in the building to offer technology programs for its high school students.

Though it’s less exposure to a campus environment than Early College High School students get, giving the Red Clay students a peek at a college setting can help as a recruiting tool, Williams says.

At Delaware State, “everybody is family,” recent graduate Kyle Sheppard of New Castle says. Sheppard, a graduate of St. Georges Technical High School, felt the university’s embrace when he needed scholarship assistance to continue his education after he ran out of funds. That experience prompted him, as a leader in student government, to launch a “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative to encourage students struggling with financial and family matters to stay in school. Delaware State “meant the world to me,” he says.

Seeing students like Sheppard persevere and succeed is the motivation that Williams uses to keep moving forward.

“The more kids we get into college, the better the country will be. The more people we can get into the middle class, the better the country will be,” he says. “That’s the core of Delaware State.”

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