it has the stately white-columned brick halls. It has the tree-lined campus, the meandering river, the monuments. It has the charmingly historic town nearby.
This venerable, historically black university has all the trappings of much better-known Virginia institutions. Yet for years, Virginia State University has remained the quiet university, one with less funding and less name recognition than most other state schools.
All that is changing. "We have proven that we deserve more of the spotlight," says Eddie N. Moore Jr., VSU's president. Bigger, better, brighter — that's what Moore wants VSU to become.
As Seen on TV?
Three freshmen huddling together in a campus bus shelter on a chilly November afternoon each give a different reason for coming to VSU.
Briana Hawkins chose VSU because the business program was "top," she says. (The business school received its accreditation last year from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.) "It wasn't too far from home," says Brittany Thomas, an education major from Northern Virginia.
" College Hill! " exclaims political-science major Nadia Hassen, referring to BET's answer to MTV's The Real World , set at Virginia State in 2006 for its third season.
The university has been seeking to increase its enrollment and diversify the student body by updating the curriculum to attract driven students like Hawkins. "Frankly, our programs did not appeal to many of the modern students," Moore says. So the university added manufacturing engineering, computer science, nursing, mass communications and criminal justice, which rapidly grew to become one of the most popular majors on campus. This fall, VSU launched its first Ph.D. program, in health psychology, for students who are aiming for careers in behavioral health.
Like Thomas, many of the university's 5,100 students come from Virginia. But they also hail from all over the East Coast. Flags flying in front of the library represent the seven most common places of origin: Virginia; New York; Washington, D.C.; Pennsylvania; New Jersey; North Carolina; and Maryland.
Students frequently find VSU by participating in a college tour sponsored by black fraternities or sororities. The bus travels along I-95 visiting various campuses — and "on a sunny day like today, when they stop at VSU, they don't want to go any further," Moore says with pride.
And then there's College Hill. The popular reality show places attractive, argumentative college students together in a house and films the fireworks that ensue. During VSU's season, eight students lived together for three months in Petersburg's Ragland Mansion, an 1850s home with a ballroom, marble fireplaces and the obligatory hot tub (which naturally became pivotal to the plot).
"Oh, we were nervous," when the show was being filmed, says Thomas Reed, director of university relations. He corrects himself: "We were optimistically nervous." At the time, College Hill was the top-rated show on BET — it was the kind of publicity VSU could never buy.
Administrators were relieved when the show finally aired. "It actually ended up showing the campus in a positive light," Reed says. Despite the cast members' hijinks and romantic entanglements, he says, "it was nothing more, probably, than what goes on at any college campus." And College Hill made Virginia State University a familiar name to an enormous college-aged audience. Applications jumped after the show aired.
Virginia State University was founded in 1882 at the urging of William Mahone, a former Confederate general, war hero and railroad magnate who believed strongly in the value of education for African-Americans. When the Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio Railroad was sold at auction in 1881, Mahone used his political influence to direct a portion of the state's proceeds to found a school near his hometown of Petersburg. Del. Alfred W. Harris, a black attorney who represented Dinwiddie County in the General Assembly, sponsored the bill to establish the school.
Called the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, the new school was intended to train teachers to educate black children and former slaves. Its founding was not without controversy — a hostile group filed a lawsuit to challenge the use of state funds to educate black Virginians, delaying the school's opening for 19 months. But open it did in October 1883, becoming the nation's first fully state-supported four-year institution of higher learning for black Americans.
Since then, the school has weathered years of change. In 1902, the state legislature revised its charter to deactivate the collegiate program and change the school's name to Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute. In 1923, the college program was restored, and in 1979, the school was named Virginia State University.
For two years running, VSU has been named the nation's top public, master's-level, historically black university in U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings. In the 2009 report, U.S. News also ranked VSU the 14th best historically black school overall. U.S. News relies on a variety of variables for its closely watched rankings, including academic rigor, funding, graduation rates and selectivity. That last variable may be the reason VSU is not higher in the overall rankings, Moore says, but that's a point of pride.
"The one that's holding us back is, we're staying true to our mission of providing opportunity," Moore says. Even students without straight A's should be able to attend college, he believes. "Our mission is to offer that chance."
For many years, Virginia State University received less than its fair share of state funding, a problem faced by many other historically black institutions in the South. "We were being snubbed," Reed says. A federal civil rights agreement remedied the situation, and now "the funding disparity has vanished," Moore says.
Moore, a former state treasurer, took a businesslike approach to running the university when he took office in 1993. He focused on funding, raising $11.6 million in his first capital campaign and pushing the school toward becoming a research university. He sometimes clashed with faculty, who felt he was asking too much. But, Moore says, "I think my financial acumen was exactly what was needed these last two years."
Times may get tough again, however. The current economic slump caused about 230 students to drop their enrollment this fall because they could not pay the bills. Tuition and fees add up to nearly $6,000 per year for Virginia residents and $14,000 for out-of-state students; room and board raises that to $13,600 and $21,700. Moore hopes, he says, that the university will continue to increase its endowment and be able to offer more students financial assistance.
Despite the financial success VSU has seen under Moore, his presidency has not been without controversy. In 2007, the university paid $600,000 to a former professor, Jean R. Cobbs, to settle a lawsuit Cobbs filed against Moore and VSU. Cobbs said she had been dismissed unfairly for her Republican political views and for supporting other professors in disputes against the administration.
Cobbs was not the first professor to allege bias at VSU. In 1999, two foreign-born VSU professors won lawsuits against the university after claiming the administration had discriminated against them by giving them undeservedly poor performance evaluations and subpar salary increases, among other things.
A Changing Campus
VSU has been growing with a vengeance. This year, it opened a new 500-bed dorm, the Gateway Residence Hall. Next year its twin will rise. Both were built to satisfy a growing demand for on-campus housing. "If we have the beds, we think people will come," Moore says.
The $20 million Engineering and Technology Building opened in December 2007, its sleek brick-and-glass design melding with more traditional buildings.
Next on the list: a "multipurpose academic center" for events and athletics. Moore had long envied Virginia Commonwealth University's Siegel Center, which draws high-profile athletic contests, concerts and other events to downtown Richmond. With $44 million in state financing, VSU is on the way to having a 7,500-seat, $70 million convocation center that will allow the opportunity to host NCAA and high-school basketball tournaments, high-school graduation ceremonies, and other profitable events. "That one is in the bag," Moore says. "That's a sure thing."
VSU is also building a closer relationship with its neighbor, Petersburg. Geographically, the two are close — from the VSU campus, which sits high atop a bluff overlooking the Appomattox River, you can see Petersburg's church spires and historic houses spread below. But VSU emphasizes that it's located in the town of Ettrick, at one point trying to make Chesterfield County its official address.
Not anymore. "I guess I saw the light," Moore acknowledges. Petersburg has begun to do a better job of supporting VSU, he says, offering financial aid for local students. And the town went all out for homecoming this year, even painting the Trojan logo in the streets, Moore says: "They really went out of their way to say, ‘We love Virginia State University.' "
Big Plans for the Future
Moore will step down as president in June 2010, but his vision for the university goes a decade beyond that date. As president, he oversaw the creation of a strategic plan that outlines where VSU will be in 2020. In the plan, enrollment will double to 10,000 students. New undergraduate and graduate programs will be established, including a law school. More buildings will rise. The endowment, currently $20 million, will increase to $100 million.
Some of the goals in the plan might seem modest, especially compared to what other Virginia universities already have: Install wireless Internet in the residence halls, replace three campus buses, build a bowling alley. But all these objectives, from the small to the grand, could help make Virginia State University a destination. Moore wants VSU to become, in effect, the University of Southside Virginia — to become the university of choice for students from Chesterfield County to the North Carolina state line, Hampton Roads to Farmville.
Virginia State will always be an HBCU — a historically black college/university — because that's how the university was founded, Moore says. Yet, he adds, "we do not want to confuse our identity with our mission. Our mission is to serve a diverse population of underserved students."
Today the university seeks to attract students of all races, especially other minorities, who could benefit from a VSU education, he says. "We are a university that is focused on opportunity rather than selectivity."