Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Wilson Proud of Norfolk State's "X" Factor: Tenacious Provider of Confidence and Tender Loving Care

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Wilson Proud of Norfolk State's "X" Factor: Tenacious Provider of Confidence and Tender Loving Care

Article excerpt

Wilson Proud of Norfolk State's "X" Factor: Tenacious Provider of. Confidence and Tender Loving Care

His grandfather on his father's side was a tenacious Virginia slave who fought in the Civil War, first for the Confederacy and then 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 excellence."

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 president.

"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. …

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