Hampton University president reflects on 40 years at his ‘home by the sea’

William R. Harvey probably doesn’t get enough sleep.

His brain wakes up him at 7 each morning, no matter how late he stayed up reading the latest book on his nightstand. He can be, as he’s fond of saying, anywhere from his Hampton University mansion, to his hometown of Brewton, Ala., or Beijing — his internal clock stays on time.

Harvey, 77, starts his day making phone calls and setting up plans for work to come from his office inside the home he shares with his wife of 51 years, Norma. Walls of the first-floor living spaces are covered in works by African-American artists — the Harveys at one point had the largest privately owned collection — as well as photos of their 40 years as president and first lady of the historically black university near downtown Hampton.

Eventually, he makes his way across the street to the university’s 100-year-old administration building. He’ll get messages about students who want to meet one-on-one in his office, which is likewise filled with art and keepsakes.

On Fridays, he checks in with every senior member of his team that runs the university’s 98 academic programs and operations.

The meeting is set to start on a recent Friday at 10:30 a.m. About two dozen people wait a bit nervously until Harvey arrives at 10:46.

Seated at the head of a long table, Harvey calls on each of them one by one. Some have nothing new to offer since last week’s meeting, while others provide updates: the rise in flu cases, an invitation for a group of students to attend a career fair, the status of bills in the General Assembly to help support the university’s proton therapy treatment center.

Harvey listens and questions each — “Did you say 60 as in six-zero flu cases?” — and offers his own insights. While he speaks, his council immerses themselves in a handout: the second draft of a pamphlet commemorating 1978 to 2018, “The William R. Harvey Years.”

Inside is a list of every new academic program to come into existence under Harvey, 92 in total. The 866 percent increase in the university’s endowment is touted with a large, colorful chart. Photos of 28 new buildings and structures, ranging from the marquee sign at the front of campus to the William R. and Norma B. Harvey Library are displayed.

Advances in research opportunities and scholarship winners and finalists are boasted. The 10-page document is sleek and extensive.

“The fact is that there’s so many people that think that HBCUs are a monolith,” Harvey tells his council. “Well, the fact is, we’re not a monolith. The fact is, some of us are very good, some of us are poor, most of us are in the middle. Hampton happens to be one of the very best. One of the things I say is, any objective analysis will show that Hampton is one of the best modest-sized universities in the country. Black or white, north or south, east or west. Any objective analysis will show that.”

Back in his office after the meeting, he takes a call from a friend, he says, who wants him to put in a good word with another friend who’s the outgoing CEO of American Express.

Later, he’ll have dinner with his wife, or perhaps stop by the faculty lounge for wine. He’ll work more from the mansion, responding to letters and making calls as he watches the news at night.

Eventually, around midnight, he’ll head up to bed, reading until he falls asleep. The next morning, he’ll repeat much of his same routine; whether it’s the weekend, a holiday, snowing, sleeting or hailing outside, he puts in hours either at home or in the office.

“Hampton’s not a job for me,” he said recently with great happiness to a group of descendants of Hampton’s founder, Gen. Samuel Chapman Armstrong. “It’s a way of life.”

Early years

When he first arrived on campus, Jewel Long remembers, Harvey had a presence.

Long, then residence hall director and assistant to the dean of women, now serves as dean of students. In 1978, she was on a subcommittee to hire the university’s 12th president.

“I remember being impressed with him,” she said. “I jokingly said to the persons who were there, because I was the young kid on the block at the time, I said, ‘That’s the person you’re going to choose.’”

His resume was impressive — a young black man educated first at historically black colleges and then prestigious Harvard University, who had returned South to work at the black institutions of Fisk University, Tuskegee University and now Hampton.

“I remember him coming to our meetings and engaging the study body and everybody just absolutely loving him as a leader of the campus,” said Angela Nixon Boyd, who enrolled as a freshman in 1980. She now is the dean of admissions, having returned to Hampton in 2001. She is one of many on Harvey’s staff who started as students and returned to, as they loving call it, their “home by the sea.”

“… He played tennis with the students and other people, but he was just so approachable and so engaging and just effervescent. Just the kind of the person that you wanted to get close to, but you were still in awe of as a student.”

DaVida Plummer also started school in 1980. She returned later as a professor in 1987 and then again in 2012. She currently is the dean of the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications and is the assistant vice president for marketing and media.

“We used to whisper, ‘Dr. Harvey, he went to Harvard,’” she recalled. “While the rest of the HBCUs (were focused on) basketball and football, Dr. Harvey was carrying a tennis racket, and he went to Harvard, and he was a living example of where an education could take you. He really was.”

Harvey had inherited a budget problem, as the university had run a deficit for years, and he took a new approach. Several years after beginning his presidency, Harvey went from being one partner to full owner of a Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company in Houghton, Mich., and said he paid off the debt it cost to purchase it in six years. He decided to run the university as a company that happened to be in the business of educating students.

Instead of lump sums of yearly money, departments were given quarterly allocations so they had to be mindful of how money was being spent.

At the end of his first year, Harvey said, the budget was balanced, as it has been every year since.

“That didn’t rub everybody the right way, but I knew it was best for Hampton,” Harvey said. “What I try to do, what I’ve tried to do all of my 40 years, is to do what, in my judgment, based on input from a lot of people, what’s best for Hampton. Now, it may not be best for this group, it may not be best for the students, it may not be best for the faculty, but if in our collective judgment it’s best for Hampton, then that’s the decision that I made.”

He’s proven himself a capable fundraiser, with the latest campaign on track to meet its $150 million goal well before it’s technically over in 2022. He looks to others, whether it be faculty members seeking grants or friends of the university, to do the same. It’s a big reason why the university’s endowment has gone from $29 million in 1978 to $280 million today.

“This tells you a lot about Dr. Harvey. My goal was, I recall, something like $35,000 to raise from the community for the whole,” said Buddy Norris, an attorney and longtime friend of Harvey’s who currently serves on the Board of Trustees. “I said, ‘Bill, that’s absurd, that’s absurdly low. We can raise $100,000.’ He said, ‘OK, you can’t, (but) your goal is $100,000.’

“I raised something like $85,000, and he announced at the closing at the campaign that I had fallen 15 percent short of my goal. It’s an interesting story, I think, because it shows, if you set a high standard, he expects you to achieve it. It also shows you, it enlightens you to the growth of what has happened at Hampton over the length of his tenure.”


Any conversation with Harvey about his time at Hampton begins and ends with his parents, his first role models. His father, a building contractor, was active in the civil rights movement, and instilled in Harvey a belief that he was no better or no worse than anyone else, even during segregation.

His mother taught him the fiscal conservatism he is known for at Hampton. His most frequent example is her lesson that you can’t buy something that costs $1.25 with just a dollar bill, which essentially shaped his approach to running the university.

In 2016, Harvey wrote all the lessons that started with his parents in his latest book, “Principles of Leadership: The Harvey Leadership Model.” Those 10 principles are vision, work ethic, academic excellence, team building, innovation, courage, management, fairness, fiscal conservatism and results.

Spend any time talking about Hampton with Harvey, and he’ll naturally point out several of those, most often vision and the results it brings.

He’s proud of the 17 employees he’s trained to go on to lead other universities and businesses, including JoAnn Haysbert. She’s now Hampton’s chancellor and provost, but took a break during her 28 years at Hampton to serve for seven years as the first woman president of Langston University in Oklahoma.

“Sometimes I look at it in 10-year spurts in the time that I’ve been here. I think it’s like each time that the university sets itself on a forward course, and we are doing that, then he will come back and reinvent himself with another continuous movement,” Haysbert said. “That is always exciting, because you never get an opportunity to feel that you are resting on your laurels. He doesn’t believe in that at all. We need to move always.

“The things that impressed me most when I came in and joined the Hampton family was I saw him as a leader who thought of things not as if they were.”

Norris said that he and the board essentially stand back and let Harvey plan and lead the university as he sees fit, which is what Harvey wants.

“He asks his trustees to let him run the school and do what he needs to do to run the school and the day-to-day thing and to focus on the big issues,” Norris said. “We’re going to be presented a budget and a request for tuition increase, and they’re very high-level discussion and the kinds of things we will be asked to say, ‘Is the increase appropriate, where are we in the comparable competition?’ Then the trustees are invited to address big ideas or other things they want, but this board does not get in the weeds.”

Harvey often is more hands-on with those leaders within the university, asking questions and driving details on things that other presidents might see as beneath them.

“He is a data-driven president, meaning we don’t shoot from the hip for anything,” Boyd said. “If you present a proposal for him about what you want to do or what change you want to make, you better bring the facts with you. You better bring the data that shows it.” She said that approach has led to enrolling a higher caliber of students, those who meet both stringent academic standards and a character profile the university developed several years ago.

“(He is) fierce, formidable but amazingly fair,” Plummer said. “I’ve learned more from him in my six-year tour of duty here than I think I’ve learned from all of my mentors in one big bucket. I think the concentrated dose of a leader who is this hands-on and this invested, the depth of his impact on your day-to-day activities and growth is amazing. And it’s like most things, you take that step forward that he’s propelled you to take and you may not realize the magnitude of that step until you realize where and how you got ot that place. And he employs all these different tools in teaching. He really listens and you realize you were taught in that silence.

“You sometimes feel the sharpness of the fine-tooth comb that he sort of waves through everything, then you open the book and see 866 percent increase in our endowment and that takes the pinch out of those sharp teeth because you realize that for every question or every ‘I don’t understand’ or every feather ruffled, in the end this school has made positive strides in every category.”

Looking ahead

Boyd said that the same presence that first captivated her and her peers nearly 38 years is still there today.

“What’s interesting to me is that’s still the case. I’ve walked around campus with him as an employee and it’s the same,” Boyd said. “The students still run up to him, they want to take pictures all the time. He’s always been one to engage them, find out where they’re from, what their majors are and how are they enjoying their experience. Those are the kinds of questions he always asks students.

“He’s been a student-centered president throughout his tenure here, always putting Hampton first and foremost,” she said. “He eats, sleeps and breathes Hampton.”

Harvey has said for years that he is always laying out and devising plans, whether that be for Hampton’s newest academic programs or his eventual retirement.

Some of the plans are concrete: he and Norma will spend half the year in their home in Hilton Head, S.C., and the other half of the time at a to-be-built house in Hampton.

He’s a bit cagey about specific retirement details, allowing himself “a couple of years” when he spoke to the Daily Press this month. One thing is certain: he’ll never stop trying to advance Hampton, like it or not.

“My Rolodex is thick,” Harvey said, referencing the phone conversation he’d had earlier in the afternoon. “You all heard as this guy called me, wanting me to call the fellow who is the CEO of a major, major Fortune 500 company. I know them, they know me. I’ve served on eight major boards. People know me. I want to help Hampton, if he or she wants me to, and if they don’t, I’m gonna do it behind the scenes,” he said, breaking into big howls of laughter.

“Hampton is a part of me. I’ve been here 40 years, another one, 1 ½ or two years, then I’ll let somebody else do it. But I’ll always help, whether the person wants it or not.”

More to come

The Daily Press will continue coverage of the 150th anniversary of Hampton University and the 40th anniversary of Dr. William R. Harvey’s presidency with a series of stories throughout March into the April 1 anniversary.

William R. Harvey

Born: Brewton, Ala., Jan. 29, 1941.

Education: Bachelor’s degree from Talladega College; master’s in history from Virginia State University; doctorate in college administration from Harvard University.

Salary: His base salary was $432,858 in 2015, according to university tax filings, and $350,000 was set aside as deferred compensation. The university reported he made $456,526 in “other compensation” that year.

Before Hampton: Administrative vice president at Tuskegee University; administrative assistant to the president of Fisk University; assistant for governmental affairs to the dean at Harvard University.

Family: Wife, Norma, three adult children, Kelly Renee, William Christopher and Leslie Denise, and three grandchildren, Taylor, Gabrielle and Lauren.

Hampton University

Fall 2017 enrollment: 4,619.

Ethnic breakdown of students: 92 percent black, 4 percent white, 4 percent other.

States represented: 44.

Countries represented: 22.

Budget: $200 million.

Endowment: $280 million.

Number of academic programs: 98.

Faculty: 378.

Staff: 596.

Hampton University’s 150/40 celebration

Several events are planned to honor the 150th anniversary of Hampton University and the 40th anniversary of Dr. William R. Harvey’s presidency.

March 14: Black Family Conference opening session, which will honor the Harvey family, 7 p.m., Ogden Hall.

March 21: Read-in of Harvey’s book “Principles of Leadership,” 6 p.m. Ogden Hall.

April 1: Founding Day Celebration, 10 a.m., Hampton University Chapel.

April 14: First lady’s luncheon (by invitation), 1:30 p.m., Student Center.

April 28: Anniversaries gala to honor HU’s 150th anniversary and Harvey’s 40th, 6-11 p.m., Hampton Roads Convention Center.

July 1: William R. Harvey Day chapel service, 11 a.m., Memorial Chapel.

Aug. 8-11: Association of African-American Museums annual conference, campuswide.

Hammond can be reached by phone at 757-247-4951 or on Twitter @byjanehammond.