Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Confidence in the Face of Controversy

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Confidence in the Face of Controversy

Article excerpt

The view of Norfolk State University's 120-acre campus, as seen from the ceiling-to-floor window in the office of the president, is deceptive. In the foreground, sit the neatly, manicured lawn and sparkling aquamarine pool of the school's red-brick presidential residence. The scene reveals nothing to suggest this is an institution struggling to recover from a multimillion-dollar fiscal deficit.

Dr. Marie Valentine McDemmond moved into this cozy fifth-floor presidential office on July 1, 1997, becoming not only the first woman to lead this sixty-three-year-old university, but the first to become president of a public four-year university in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Little did McDemmond know when she began her new job that the verdant vista from her office window would become a thorny symbol of the perception problems she, and the university, must now overcome.

Details about Norfolk State's financial woes began to make headlines locally and nationally within months of McDemmond's arrival. She was prompt to implement a cost-cutting strategy that included the unpopular decisions of laying off 116 employees and increasing student fees by 27 percent. Then, this past July, McDemmond -- who perhaps ironically, has built a career as a prudent higher education fiscal manager -- found herself in the awkward position of having to explain to Virginians why the house she lives in was renovated to the tune of more than $200,000 at a time when the university was facing a $4 million deficit.

In her own defense, McDemmond maintains that the university's fiscal difficulties were incurred prior to her taking office. Her predecessor, Dr. Harrison B. Wilson, is a well-heeled, politically-connected, mammoth of a man whose twenty-two-year imprint is found in facilities, programs, and systems throughout the NSU campus. He has rebuked McDemmond's assaults on his legacy and continues to linger at the university as a president emeritus with an on-campus office and a three-course teaching load in the School of Education.

Despite the obvious tensions that exist in such a charged environment, McDemmond appears remarkably confident and optimistic about the future of NSU as well as in her own ability to lead the university out of this crisis. A graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana, and the University of New Orleans, where she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees, respectively, she completed her doctorate in higher education administration and finance from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her thirty-year career has included experiences as a professor of education, and as a senior administrator at Emory University, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and Atlanta University, among others. Earlier this year she was named to a three-year term as a Senior Scholar by the National Association for Women in Education (NAWE).

Black Issues Executive Editor Cheryl D. Fields spoke to McDemmond last month about the NSU deficit and house controversy, her long-range plans for the university, and her views on the particular challenges African American women face as they move into presidential positions at the nation's historically Black colleges and universities. The following is excerpted from that conversation:

Were you aware of Norfolk State University's financial situation before you came here? And if not, why?

I was named [president] in December of 1996, and I was not sent the financial statements until around January [1997].

The first board meeting that I attended was a retreat in Williamsburg in February 1997, before I started -- I started in July 1997. One of the board members at that time asked if there was a deficit in athletics, and the answer was "No." So I questioned one or two people, but I didn't make a big push of it.

I think the first time that I mentioned more about the deficit situation was at the April board meeting. Phil Walzer's article said that I had called it "one of the signals" or "a red flag" or something. …

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