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Photo by Jay Paul
Langston Hall, an academic building, on Virginia State University’s Colonial Heights campus.
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Photo by Jay Paul
Incoming VSU SGA president Marshawn Shelton (left) and his predecessor, Hyisheem Calier (right) outside of Foster Hall, the university’s student commons.
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Photo by Jay Paul
Elbowroom is a luxury among the hundreds overflowing from the portico and steps of Foster Hall, Virginia State University’s student commons. The crowd extends out from the building into the blocked-off street, lined by newly blooming trees, welcome signs of spring after a winter of discontent at the Ettrick campus.
“Election day!” a voice cries through a megaphone. “Cast your votes for SGA!” A short line forms in the middle of the street as a purple-clad step team begins to dance. Students watch and applaud in T-shirts that bear the names of candidates, like the ones on the signs held high above the crowd.
One of those names is junior Marshawn Shelton, a management major vying for the Student Government Association presidency at one of Virginia’s most prominent historically black colleges.
“Most students have voted already,” Shelton says, standing on the curb of the teeming street. “Now we’re just making a social out of it.”
While the jubilant mood of the SGA elections on this early April afternoon could seem a hearty celebration, for the Trojans of VSU, it represents much more. After a fall semester of enrollment shortages, severe budget cuts, student protests and administrative turnover, the college’s new leadership is seeking to stabilize the institution’s future.
“Starting this year, the major issue was lack of knowledge, transparency,” says Hyisheem Calier, the school’s incumbent SGA president, who was set to graduate in May. The muffled roar of election-day activity drones on outside his second-floor office in Foster Hall. “We needed more transparency between us and the administration. We didn’t know the state of our school.”
VSU faced financial ruin after enrollment sharply fell prior to the 2014 fall semester. Federal and state cuts to higher education last year made aid unavailable for many at a school where nearly 90 percent of students require financial aid, including 70 percent who qualify for Pell grants. The drop resulted in the school enrolling almost 1,000 fewer students than in the fall of 2013.
In the spring of 2014, VSU’s Board of Visitors approved an operating budget of $183.4 million, with the expectation that 5,500 students would attend in the fall. When only 4,495 students arrived on campus by mid-September, the university was immediately short $17.6 million, money that would have come from the tuition and room-and-board fees of the students who were projected to enroll, but did not. By the end of September, VSU faced a 10 percent cut to its entire budget, as an almost $19 million deficit loomed.
To close the gap, the university shut down several residence halls and scaled back its dining services. When the cuts went into effect, there was “no budget whatsoever,” for the SGA or student activities, Calier says. The quality of student life sharply declined, students say, citing the administration’s lack of openness as a blow to campus morale.
“The initial reaction from most students was that ‘Why weren’t we notified of it sooner?’ ” says junior Gianna Shipp, who served as the SGA’s chief of staff. Shipp also ran for the student government presidency ultimately won by Shelton.
At his desk in Foster Hall, Calier leans forward, tension creeping into his voice as his smile fades. “There was no [student] representation when there was a decision made to cut back on the cafeteria,” he says. “There was no representation when they decided to cut funds for student activities. And [the SGA] has a vice president of student affairs, so if he’s not sitting on the committee, then I don’t understand why a decision is made.”
In October, hundreds of students decried the school’s state of affairs in a series of protests around campus, calling for the resignation of VSU’s top administrators. President Keith T. Miller resigned on Halloween, ending his four-and-a-half-year term. Board of Visitors Rector Harry Black announced that the board and Miller “agreed VSU should move in another direction strategically.” Miller declined an interview request for this story.
That new direction would come with the mid-November announcement of an interim president in Pamela Hammond. A former provost at Hampton University, Hammond started on Jan. 1 and became the first female president in VSU’s 133-year history. Through a university spokesman, Hammond also declined to be interviewed.
“We will not participate if you interview Dr. Miller or include him in the story,” Tom Reed, director of university relations, wrote in an email. “Our focus is on moving forward and not on the past.”
As her term began in January, Hammond set out to “right the ship,” telling Chesterfield Monthly, “My biggest concerns are increasing enrollment and stabilizing finances.”
She wasted no time. In late January, VSU met 98 percent of its spring enrollment goal of 4,629 students, while simultaneously balancing its budget. In mid-February, the school reported that in her first month, Hammond reeled in more than $350,000 in investments from corporate partners, including Microsoft, Altria and a $200,000 donation from Thompson Hospitality in the form of a check personally delivered by Warren Thompson.
To increase enrollment, the school has a $260,000 contract with recruitment marketing firm Royall & Co., which assists prospective students in completing applications and is expected to bring in around 25,000 applications this year. In addition to the marketing firm, Hammond also has called on alumni to help with recruiting and to support the school through campaigns like the Tuition Assistance Fund, which aids students in paying their tuition costs. Meanwhile, the Board of Visitors approved a 3 percent increase in tuition this past spring, keeping the in-state price tag of $18,478, and the $28,650 tuition for out-of-state students, the lowest of Virginia’s 15 public universities.
The VSU Alumni Association’s Richmond Metro Chapter held an April gala on the campus celebrating the chapter’s 100-year anniversary. All proceeds went to the Tuition Assistance Fund. Chapter President Barry Harris would not share other specific contributions his chapter has made to help increase the school’s $31 million endowment, but he says, “If you’re an alumnus, you see or you hear the alarm at the gate and you need to act accordingly. [Hammond] shouldn’t have to come to us to say, ‘We need help.’ ”
“It’s going to take more than what we’re going to donate over the course of the next few months to really turn the situation around,” Harris says.
Hammond has also turned to the General Assembly to seek state assistance for the school, telling the Petersburg’s Progress-Index in February, “[Legislators] are listening and they understand, but you know I understand they don’t want me coming back every year with the same story.”
Among the legislators who have met with Hammond is Del. Joseph Preston, who represents the 63rd District, including Petersburg and VSU. On whether the school will receive any increase in state aid, Preston says, “Obviously, we’re going to advocate for the resources that the university needs to complete its mission. Money is tight across the board.”
Preston, who has taught at VSU as an adjunct professor for 25 years, adds, “[Hammond] has shown a 1,000 percent commitment … I’m certainly going to be pushing for her to put her name in for the permanent position. It’s hard to get good people.”
Regarding Hammond’s predecessor, Preston says, “What put Virginia State in a bad situation was really no one’s fault. People were really very critical of Dr. Miller. I disagree with a lot of people on that. He was doing the best that he could.”
While Hammond’s campaigning for the school’s financial security and enrollment continues, student opinion of the school’s trajectory has improved. With the return of funds to student activities, events like the election day festivities are possible again, boosting student morale and convincing some that the tide is turning.
“I think it’s obvious to see,” Calier says in his office, his smile sprightly returning. “[Hammond] came on, and in the first [60 days,] the budget is balanced. And there was money given to student affairs for student life, so it was that easy to solve the issues that affect us on a daily basis.”
The faculty’s response to the new president has been more guarded, says Kenneth Bernard, chairman of the Faculty Senate and a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.
“They’re cautious at this point, because they’re not sure where we’re going exactly,” he says.
Hammond placed a spending freeze on the faculty in January when the university projected spring enrollment would fall short. She also raised the possibility of furloughing staff. Although spring enrollment numbers were met, “there was no announcement that the freeze was suspended,” Bernard says. As Hammond’s term goes on, for the faculty, “it’s just a wait-and-see attitude at this point,” he adds.
A search committee is currently looking for the next permanent president, though Omar Faison, the committee’s faculty representative, says a decision will be made by December at the earliest. Until then, Hammond, who is a candidate for the job, presses on, telling the Progress-Index, “I want [he or she] to find Virginia State stronger than how I found it.”