Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Licensed to Lead; Dr. Belle S. Wheelan, Former President of Northern Virginia Community College, Leads Virginia's Department of Education. (Special Report: Women in Higher Education)

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Licensed to Lead; Dr. Belle S. Wheelan, Former President of Northern Virginia Community College, Leads Virginia's Department of Education. (Special Report: Women in Higher Education)

Article excerpt

Dr. Belle S. Wheelan had been president of Northern Virginia Community College, the second largest community college in the nation, since 1998 when she was tapped in December by the newly elected Democratic governor of Virginia, Mark R. Warner, to serve as the commonwealth's secretary of education. Six years earlier, when named president of Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg, Va., Wheelan became the first African American woman to serve as president of a two- or four-year public institution of higher education in the commonwealth of Virginia.

"Belle's energy and willingness to build bridges between the worlds of business and education impressed me greatly," said Warner at the time of Wheelan's appointment. "She has taken Northern Virginia by storm over the past three years with her enthusiasm, energy and ability to get the job done."

Shortly after her appointment, Black Issues Editor in Chief Frank Matthews spoke with Wheelan at her Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) office.

BI: How would you describe your leadership style?

BW: I've been blessed with colleagues who I've left alone to get their jobs done, but felt supported when times have been tough. Whatever job I take, I'll tackle it and do my best and have people who will be there to help me get it done. We work as best we can with the resources we have.

BI: How will Virginia's budget shortfall affect your style?

BW: I'm not a miracle worker. I'm not able to pull funds out of a hat. I'm taking a pay cut, so I can't even use my own personal finances to help the state budget. You do what you can and just keep moving from there.

I often say that a real leader is one who can make things happen when there are no resources. Anybody can lead if there's money. I think what we need are resources and it's not just financial resources. I think through the college and universities service-learning programs, plenty of college students are helping with remediation, spending some time in the community. It's more than just giving money.

BI: Are you sure that you want to walk away from a plum position (at NOVA)?

BW: In four years, I'll be unemployed. But four years ago I wasn't here, so I have to say that the good Lord has brought me this far safely, and He's not going to leave me here to hang.

BI: There is always the question about giving back ...

BW: I think that I'm paying my debt every day because I am doing the best that I can, trying to live up to the expectations of people who have supported me. I make myself available to others as a mentor, letting them know about the pitfalls. I have opened my home to many a graduate student who was writing a dissertation on leadership and women. I've let them shadow me around. And let them know that there is a place for them in this field, that these are the tradeoffs. I want them to see the good and the bad.

BI: You have a reputation of being a tough taskmaster. Do you agree?

BW: Everybody who is here says they need roller skates to keep up with me in everything that I'm doing. Being president is a 24-hour, seven days a week job. When you go to the grocery store, people know who you are. Unfortunately, on one hand, you are the institution. So if you look crappy, then they think, "Boy, that's what's leading the institution?" And it does take its toll on me. You can't just go to the ABC store when you want to. You have to be careful what movies you are renting at Blockbuster or whatever, because everybody knows who you are. But by the same token, you are very proud to represent the institution and hope that the good things that people see about you do indeed spread to the institution.

BI: Tell us how the job offer to be (Virginia's) secretary of education came about?

BW: I got a call the Tuesday before Thanksgiving from a gentleman who was with an HR firm, a headhunter, who was given my name as a potential candidate for a senior level Cabinet position. …

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