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WVSU moves ahead with new president, new energy

INSTITUTE, W.Va. -- A new era began at West Virginia State University Saturday morning, when Brian Hemphill was officially inaugurated as the school's 10th president.

"It was a moment that I'll cherish for the rest of my life," Hemphill said. "I'll never forget it."

Hemphill was surprised that his emotions got the best of him. He has been on the job for a year. Still, he choked up with tears while thanking his family and the school's faculty.

"I never dreamed I would find such a beautiful place to call home, a safe community to raise my family," Hemphill said. "The mountains of West Virginia are truly majestic, but I will tell you that it is the people who have captured my heart and the hearts of my family."

In front of about 400 people Hemphill promised to put students first and lead the university to new heights while embracing its rich history. Hemphill served for eight years at Northern Illinois University, where he was vice president for student affairs & enrollment and an associate professor before coming to West Virginia State.

Before his work at NIU, he was associate vice chancellor and dean of students at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, associate dean of students at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, assistant dean of students at Cornell College and coordinator of minority recruitment and retention at Iowa State University.

Hemphill said he will focus on student recruitment, retention and degree-completion rates, enhancing and expanding academic program offerings, alumni engagement and improving campus infrastructure.

"Energy is everywhere, the pride is palpable, the optimism is genuine and it is all very well placed," said Paul Hill, West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission chancellor. "Already under President Hemphill's visionary leadership this university -- which is steeped in tradition that is always to be treasured -- is evolving and moving forward into a campus marked by kinship and diversity, strong academics and robust research, new opportunities, and at the center of all this is an unmistakable focus on students."

The historically black university was founded in 1891 as a land-grant university to provide higher education opportunities for all West Virginians. Hemphill said access to education must remain a top priority.

"We must, as a state, continue to invest in higher education so that it remains an affordable option for those who want to better themselves and, in turn, become productive citizens that will lead this great state, Hemphill said."

Improving science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) offerings on campus will be a big part of that. Hemphill said that future state leaders will learn in ways that we don't yet understand or even know about.

In January, the American Electric Power Foundation donated $300,000 to the school to help establish a program to increase interest in the STEM fields. The school also received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in September to increase the number of STEM students.

"Our new president is totally committed, university allied and phenomenally prepared for the task ahead," said Kay Goodwin, West Virginia secretary of education and the arts. "The future is bright. The timing is opportune. The man and the mission have joined and inspired us all."

Hemphill said he wants students and university staff to tell State's story.

"West Virginia State University has always had quality academic programs, always had great services for students," he said. "The one thing we needed to improve was the ability to communicate the message and tell the story."

Full-time freshman enrollment at State has increased by nearly 50 percent since this time last year and, on Friday, the school broke ground for its first new student housing building in 40 years. A plan for a new on-campus sports facility also is in the works.

"We're truly telling the story now and it truly warms my heart that students are making that decision, and it's because they've been informed," Hemphill said. "They realize you don't have to leave the state or leave the Kanawha Valley to get a quality education. You can do it right here, at West Virginia State University."

Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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