Hard work and perseverance are defining a new presidency at a university that rose from an abandoned motel and gas station off Route 13 and now enrolls more than 20,000 students, the majority of whom are adult learners who work either full- or part-time.
Wilmington University President LaVerne Harmon, who became the first African-American woman to lead a Delaware college or university when she took the helm in July, has a lot in common with the students the institution has dedicated itself to, she said. She’s not only a first-generation college student but worked fulltime while getting her bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate.
The percentage of women holding the top job at colleges and universities stood at 30 percent in 2016, up just four percentage points from 2011, according to the American Council on Education. Less than 20 percent of college presidents are minorities.
The profile of a typical U.S. college or university president is slowly changing, but it continues to be a white male in his early 60s with a doctoral degree who has been in his current position for seven years.
At an inauguration held for Harmon on International Women’s Day, friends and colleagues praised her for remaining humble while breaking barriers and inspiring students. Harmon doesn’t like the spotlight and was hesitant to be the subject of Wilmington University’s first presidential inauguration in its nearly 50-year history, said Erin DiMarco, the university’s senior vice president and chief operating officer
“We had to do some convincing to get her here,” said Marco, who has been inspired by Harmon herself.
“She’s genuine,” DiMarco said. “You know she’s not putting on airs. She is who she is. She says what she means. There’s truth in her genuineness.”
Kye Reynolds, president of the university’s Student Government Association, said Harmon is one of the reasons she’s graduating this spring. When she first transferred to the school, Reynolds said she felt lost and that some tough personal experiences left her feeling unmotivated. She was introduced to Harmon, who is known for her inspiring pep talks.
“When I first met her, I said to myself, ‘I have never met someone with so much class, style and compassion,'” Reynolds said. “Thanks to her, I not only jumped back in the race, but I’m going to cross the finish line in May.”
Kindness and compassion are part of Harmon’s nature, and she contributes a lot of her success to her family and the way she was brought up.
Her mother, Laura Thomas, came from a family of 12 children and grew up on a farm in North Carolina, where the family worked as sharecroppers. She walked five miles to and from school every day, and despite only being able to attend school if she did enough work on the farm, graduated top of her class.
“She taught me to respect myself and others, to believe in myself, the importance of education, to treat others with love and respect, we’re all the same in God’s eyes,” Harmon said.
Her father, Vernon, who Harmon is named after, dropped out of school after the seventh-grade to help support his family when his own father died.
After Harmon’s parents got married, they moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, to raise their children. They wanted to escape the prejudice and racism they had faced in the South and give their family a better shot at the future. Laura Thomas worked as a seamstress at a dress factory, while Vernon drove a delivery truck.
Harmon was the second of four children.
“I was always the one that wanted everyone to be happy,” she said. “I was the peacemaker.”
Harmon said she did not experience racism when she went to school but instead was a star student.
In elementary school, one of her teachers loved her so much she clipped a note on her collar asking her parents permission to take her home for the weekend. In seventh grade, the family moved to a more affluent neighborhood, and Harmon became the only African-American female in her new middle school. In high school, too, she was one of few black students.
“I do believe that I was placed in the secretarial track because I was a female, but I’m not sure if it had anything to do with race,” she said. “Women often weren’t often placed in the college preparatory track.”
In fact, it wasn’t until one of her teachers, Mr. Darden, asked her if she was going to college that she ever really considered it. He helped her sign up for chemistry and algebra during her senior year.
“He changed the course of my life,” Harmon said. “He even filled out applications for me to go to colleges.”
She was accepted to two colleges but ended up at one that wasn’t a great fit for her and left before getting her degree. Falling back on her secretarial skills, she got a job hiring substitute teachers at what was then the Wilmington Public School District.
“I loved it,” she said. “I was in a position where I could call someone that was unemployed and get them a job on that particular day.”
She stayed with the school district for a number of years, eventually moving up to work as the superintendent’s administrative assistant. Harmon always wanted to go back to college, but didn’t have the resources, she said.
Around that same time, her sister, Linda Thomas, starting working at Wilmington College as President Audrey Doberstein’s assistant. Linda introduced Harmon to Doberstein, who offered her a full scholarship to complete her undergraduate degree.
Harmon’s excitement was quickly marred by Linda’s unexpected death, however. The young woman had a brain aneurysm in 1989.
“The entire university was there,” said Harmon, who still tears up when she thinks about the funeral.
Doberstein offered Harmon Linda’s position. Harmon took the job and worked full-time while pursuing first her bachelor’s degree in business management and then her master’s in human resources and administrative management.
“It was tough,” Harmon said. “It was really tough for the whole family. But it wasn’t a difficult or challenging transition at all. They really accepted me for me, there was no comparison at all between my sister and me.”
“It was overwhelming at times. It was stressful. but I was determined. I worked really hard. I sacrificed time with my family and friends for school work. But I always had this characteristic inside of me where I would never give up, no matter what, and I was taught that as a child.”
Doberstein also appointed Harmon to her executive cabinet, giving her insight into how the college was run. Wilmington College became Wilmington Univesity in 2007, and Harmon ended up working in several different departments. She held titles as an adjunct faculty member, assistant to the president, dean of student affairs, vice president of student affairs, university vice president, and executive vice president.
She also spearheaded the development of the university’s Leadership Insitute, established the offices of Student Affairs and Disabilities and guided negotiations that advanced WilmU’s athletics from NAIA to NCAA Division II.
She met her husband, Malone, while they were both in the master’s program at Wilmington University. When she started going to the University of Pennsylvania for her doctorate, he would drive her to classes and wait in the building’s lobby so he could drive her back home again. When she was doing research for her dissertation, he’d accompany her to the library and pull books off the shelf for her.
When she fell asleep from sheer exhaustion, he put the finishing touches on her powerpoints.
That was before they were even married, Harmon said. She knew he was a keeper. Malone now works as an independent technology contractor.
“He was so supportive,” Harmon said. “Unbelievably supportive.”
Malone, Harmon’s mom, and the rest of her family were all at the inauguration last week. Harmon’s father died in 1983.
They, university faculty and administrators clapped when Harmon shared her vision for Wilmington University and its students.
Harmon wants to keep the student debt ratio low — Wilmington University already boasts that graduates have 60 percent less student debt than the U.S. average — expand and create relationships with academic and corporate partners, introduce new programs and invest in new technology and facilities.
She is overseeing construction of a new campus on Concord Pike, and the university is also in the midst of creating a Criminal Justice Insitute, which will provide research, education programs, professional development and consulting services to assist the community in addressing crime and public safety concerns.
Wilmington University also worked to train correctional officers after a deadly prison riot last year and has a year-long teacher residency program that has received national renown.
Joseph Farnan Jr., chairman of Wilmington University’s Chair of Trustees, said Harmon will help move the institution forward while staying student-centered.
“Dr. Harmon is the embodiment of the university’s mission,” he said. “She came on as an employee, became a student, worked while earning her bachelor’s, masters and doctorate, served on the faculty, joined the administration and then took on the role of president.”
He described her as caring, inspirational, fair-minded, energetic, ethical and approachable, and said Wilmington University was fortunate to have her.
Harmon was uncomfortable with all the praise.
“I never look at any of this as being about me,” she said. “For me, it’s always been about service, services to others, service to employees. I just don’t look at myself that way. I focus on the job at hand and do what I do.”
She said her experiences have helped her relate to students in a meaningful way, however, which will help her as president.
“I understand their needs,” she said. “I understand their challenges. I understand the level of responsibility outside the classroom. And I understand the amount of work involved in all of this. I understand the dedication and commitment it requires.”
Contact Jessica Bies at (302) 324-2881 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @jessicajbies.
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