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W.Va. State chief looks back after taking over troubled school

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Brian Hemphill stepped into a precarious position when he took the reins of West Virginia State University one year ago.

The school's finances were uncertain. Cuts to state funding loomed on the horizon. Enrollment was down. Buildings on campus were suffering from the effects of deferred maintenance and desperately needed attention.

Hemphill's predecessor was also a looming and controversial figure.

Hazo Carter served as president at State for a quarter century before retiring in 2012, a year after the school's faculty declared by a vote in had no confidence in his leadership. Faculty members said at the time the college was stuck in a rut.

But Hemphill defined that period as one of "excitement, of anticipation on campus."

"You have to provide focus," he said. "One of the things we did early on was lay out a clear vision as we moved forward as a school."

Hemphill, who took the position a year ago last week, has spent the past year combating the inertia identified by faculty in 2011.

For better or worse, the university is making changes:

  • A new $2.1 million athletic facility is under construction and slated for completion in 2014.
  • The school now plans to build its first new dorm since 1969.
  • First-year enrollment is up more than 7 percent for fall 2013, and officials expect to receive even more applications next year than this year.
  • "Those are things that we could accomplish, so we worked on them," Hemphill said. "For me it was looking at the most critical need and looking at what realistically we could do. We had to start with things that I knew we could address."  

    Last month the state transferred property that used to belong to the West Virginia Rehabilitation Center to the school - that property is in disrepair but lies adjacent to the school's campus.

    Officials are touting the new property as a signal that State is poised for growth. (They still aren't sure what they'll use the property for, and don't plan to make substantive moves toward renovation in the immediate future.)

     There are softer things too, like Hemphill's strong relationship with the faculty and university community - the accomplishment he says he is most proud of.

    "That was something that was very important to me," he said. "When I came in we were really looking at how we could enhance and advance the relationship between the administration and faculty."

    For a university president, Hemphill is known for being especially visible on campus.

    He spends his free time the campus grounds and hallways. On a recent walk from his office to the construction site on the edge of campus, groundskeepers, staff and students greeted him with a smile and a familiar wave.

    "You have to be authentic, and be who you are," he said.

    Hemphill's plan to rejuvenate State was multi-pronged: he wanted to recruit more students, dress up the university's physical presence and work on the public perception of the school. To get started on all those things, though, he began with the alumni.

    "The alumni are so important because they're your history, your legacy," Hemphill said.

    He started reaching out to former State students and the other pieces started falling into place: alumni help a university recruit new students, donate money to the school and help with the public image.

    "I want every person who has ever walked the halls of State to be connected to the university still in some way," Hemphill said.

    Contact writer Shay Maunz at or 304-348-4886.

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