A Shared ResponsibilityBluefield State’s new president makes college’s success a community agendaBy Kendra Hamilton
Dr. Albert L. Walker, the new president of Bluefield State College in Bluefield, W.Va., is a career educator. He has taught in public schools and institutions of higher education since 1967. Previously, he was vice chancellor for academic affairs and a tenured professor at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina.
For a five-year period, 1979-1984, Walker served as assistant commissioner of education, Division of Urban and Teacher Education, Missouri Department of Elementary & Secondary Education. Walker has a bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University, three master’s degrees from Bradley University and a doctorate in educational administration from Indiana University.
The first thing Dr. Albert L. Walker learned when he began his term as president of Bluefield State College in September was that, in West Virginia, word travels fast.
“One of the advantages when you start a new executive position in an election year is that you have a golden opportunity to meet the legislators,” Walker says. But when he attended most of the Democratic and Republican events, he discovered that he was already known. ” ‘Oh, we understand you’re at Bluefield,’ ” was most often the response.
Indeed, Walker was not just known — he was warmly welcomed. On his first trip to the local bank, for example, “The bank president saw me walk in — we had just met at an event at the college — and I could hear him yelling across the lobby, ‘There goes Dr. Walker, president of Bluefield State College! Give him whatever he wants!’ “
Those anecdotes, and Walker’s lavish praise of the small-town lifestyle he’s come to cherish in West Virginia, are quite at odds with Bluefield State’s somewhat tarnished public image.
Five years ago, for example, only 6 percent of Bluefield State’s student body of roughly 2,700 was Black — this despite the fact that the college gets a $1 million federal grant each year as a historically Black institution. The professor who pointed out the emperor’s state of undress on the falling Black enrollments was fired, although an administrative law judge ordered him to be rehired in 1998. And several other discrimination complaints and controversies marred the nine-year tenure of Walker’s predecessor, Dr. Robert Moore.
But since 1997, there has been a significant sea change at Bluefield State, Walker says. Minority student enrollments are more than double the 1997 levels; graduate programs are being explored; and in the region, Bluefield State is leading the way in technology.
BI: Given the serious problems that Bluefield State has had with diversity in the past, what’s your assessment of the current situation and where do you think things are headed in the future?
AW: First of all, the problems are really challenges. We know that one of the things we need to do is to keep pushing to get minority students here, to make our programs known by minorities. And … the term applies to international students as well. We’re actually doing very well with international outreach efforts.
But you have to remember that we’re somewhat unique in that we’re a 100 percent-commuter campus. We don’t have the dorms, so we are recruiting, for the most part, within driving distance of the campus.
Still, our percentage of minority students is up to 14.49 percent. We’re one of the most diverse campuses here in West Virginia, though I can imagine West Virginia State would make a similar claim. But on our campus we have, in addition to African Americans, Native Americans, Asians. There are even 15 or 20 Armenians here, studying education in America. They came here first because we had the diversity and then (given their research interests) the history of the institution made the campus very interesting for them.
So yes, we have diversity, and those who would challenge us, we ask them to count their own diversity.
BI: You mention that your international students were very interested in the history of the campus. I bet a lot of our readers would be interested in knowing what happened to Bluefield State. It’s a historically Black college, but now Blacks are in the minority. How did that come about?
AW: My wife (Mary) and I have often talked about what happened. It’s so important to any institution to try and learn the history of what occurred and why. But the biggest thing that contributed to the transition (from Black to White) here was the economy.
Many of the African American students who attended Bluefield specifically came because their parents worked in the coalmines. When the coal industry started dying out, the African Americans and many others started leaving the area. So in essence, the college ended up drawing from those who lived locally.
The process actually began in the ’50s. In the ’50s, White veterans integrated the campus. They had the GI Bill and they wanted a campus they could easily drive to. And they were welcomed. They were active participants in many of the activities and athletic events. So, one of the things we boast of when I meet with Rotarians or other groups and I tell the college’s story is that Bluefield was ahead of its time.
But I look back and think back to my predecessors and the choices they faced. And there came a time when enrollment was 500 to 600 students. So in essence, had the school not grown it could have easily been merged or closed. The college did what it had to do. It has maintained its identity but it also had to keep its doors open. People sometimes forget the purpose of a state institution — that it’s basically there to serve the people first.
But Homecoming was a most touching time for my wife and me. It was then that we found out how many of our employees (are graduates with) children attending the school or graduating from the institution. So I made the pledge at that time that I would attempt to bridge the gap between those graduates from the ’60s, when the school was predominantly Black but in transition, and the graduates of today.
BI: How do you respond to recent news reports that the turnover rate among African American HBCU presidents is around 25 percent and that fund-raising pressures are the No. 1 reason?
AW: During the interview process, that question was put forward, and I have to say that my response, with my own experience in fund-raising, was that it’s a necessity now. The reports are that 48 of the 50 states are having financial problems. West Virginia is no different. So since I’ve been here, one of the things I’ve deliberately done is to begin working with all the community leaders — the bankers, heads of various agencies. Every chance I get, I speak before them. And my argument is that this college, because it is 100 percent commuter, is your college. It belongs to the community, so whatever becomes of it is shared responsibility.
We’ve begun to see the fruit of that. Two weeks ago, we received from a major local foundation a $400,000 research and development grant … for a small-business incubator. We made the argument that one of the ways we can perhaps rekindle vitality of this area — the coal counties of West Virginia — is in fact through economic development. Many of these same counties are the state’s most economically depressed. This college trained so many of the teachers and educators — our primary mission was teacher training. Now, we’re saying the way this college can give back is by working with small-town mayors and others to rebuild the small-business base of their communities.
BI: Do you think African American college presidents face pressures that are different from those faced by their White counterparts?
AW: I’m the 12th president of Bluefield State College, and it so happens that Al Walker is Black — that’s the approach I’ve taken with the legislators and business community and the campus community.
It’s actually a two-edged sword with the economy making it difficult for a lot of people. The larger institutions that have medical schools and law schools also have graduates who are in positions that they can give back to their alma maters. But many of the HBCUs and the smaller non-Black institutions that had their origins in teacher education are in a very different situation. Teachers don’t make a lot, though sometimes we can marry attorneys (laughter).
In essence, though, that’s one reason why small colleges and religious schools are very much akin to each other. And it’s also why my philosophy has been I pay a lot of attention to small college fund-raising techniques. No school with an enrollment of less than 5,000 that wants to give value to its administrators and faculty and students can do that unless the president gets out and raises funds. You always have to have that in the forefront of your consciousness if you want to survive.
BI: What is Bluefield State’s long-term strategy for survival in this challenging economic environment?
AW: The plans we have for the future will capitalize on the strengths that we have. For example, we now are one of the leading institutions in the state as far as technology. In fact, I indicated to the chancellor of higher education for our entire state that we view ourselves as “the MIT of the mountains.”
One of the goals I’ve made very clear on this campus is that we want to move beyond the bachelor’s into the master’s in two or three areas in which we’re very strong. Those would be technology — as I said, we lead the area in programs and nation accreditation status — and also business administration and computer science.
Specifically, we’re partnering with a campus in Princeton (W.Va.), approximately 20 minutes away — Mountain State University — to offer some of their graduate programs on this campus. We have a twofold purpose. (Following this strategy is) allowing us to look at the market they’re able to attract and study that. So we’re letting larger institutions pave the way. As we find the population (to support new programs) is there, we use joint faculty appointments to help us to grow.
BI: It sounds like there’s been a significant turnaround at Bluefield State.
AW: Well, no one has ever called me a savior.
Whenever you’re applying for a top executive position, you do your homework. When I arrived physically on campus, I made it a point to meet as many faculty and staff as possible. And I found morale to be high.
You see, I view the interview as a two-way process. First, I had to impress them that I was the right person for the position. But also, they had to impress me that they were the right faculty and staff to actively work with and welcome me. Since I’ve been here, I’ve found the campus community to be very receptive to my ideas.
At the same time, things have gone great. We had record enrollment in the fall. I can’t claim credit for that, but our projections for spring top the 3,000 mark as well, so basically our retention rate is looking very good — with minorities and non-minorities.
The key is I know what history has been for this college. When I signed on the dotted line, (it was with the understanding) I’m going to make sure that we have the best, in diversity and in quality of programs, for this southern part of West Virginia. Everywhere I go, I keep my vision of the college in front of everyone. It’s been a good marriage so far.
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