Regions Southwest Virginia

Brian O. Hemphill is inaugurated as Radford University’s seventh president

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Print this page By Paula C. Squires
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Brian O. Hemphill at the inauguration ceremony | Courtesy Radford University

The strains of bagpipes played by a student band wearing colorful skirts of tartan plaid set the stage Thursday for a Highland-style inauguration of Radford University’s seventh president.

Dr. Brian O. Hemphill, whose tenure officially began on July 1, was formally installed during ceremonies at the school that drew a crowd of nearly 2,000. It included representatives from colleges around the state and the country, state Secretary of Education Dietra Trent and some of Hemphill’s former mentors and colleagues from West Virginia State University, where he served as president before coming to Radford. 

Hemphill, decked out in red and black academic regalia, pledged the beginning of a new era for the 106-year-old school, known for its teaching programs, saying that Radford would move forward with a student-focused approach that embraces innovation to address a changing environment for higher education.

“When we began this journey together on July 1, 2016, we made a commitment — a commitment to excellence, accountability, transparency, and student-centeredness,” he said.

Under his leadership, Hemphill promised to focus on six areas:

• Brand identity
• Academic excellence and research
• Student success
• Strategic enrollment growth
• Economic development and community partnerships
• Philanthropic giving and alumni engagement

He charged Radford to “do more in the years ahead to ensure that we have the skilled workforce needed to foster creativity and innovation and drive our economy to higher levels of promise and prosperity.” 

Access and opportunity to college should be key, he added, “regardless of race, creed, color, or economic background … No one should be denied an education based on affordability.’’  

Against a backdrop of shrinking state budgets, intense competition for college students and massive student debt, “some universities and colleges are closing their doors,” noted Hemphill. “But I am confident Radford University will thrive.”

To keep Radford competitive, Hemphill said the faculty must be active participants in the governance of the university. He also wants the school to be data-driven, “with clear metrics for success and accountability.” 

While retaining its traditional strength in teaching (Radford began as an effort to train more teachers for Virginia’s expanding public school system), Hemphill said it must be willing to look for new opportunities in research and niche markets, including accelerated degrees.

“Today, universities are not only learning centers, but also economic engines for the commonwealth and our nation.’’

Challenges in higher education also represented a theme sounded by the event’s keynote speaker, E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University, who has worked with Hemphill through the years. 

“This is an age of doubt,” said Gee. “People have doubts about the economy, the future, the political process … People are questioning the value of a degree in building a successful life.” 

With tuition prices outpacing inflation, more students are assuming debt, with about $1.5 trillion dollars owed currently. And at the same time, the pay for some jobs has fallen. “It adds up to a crisis,” Gee said.

Yet a university’s role is not to make people comfortable, he added, “but to make people think. Our nation still looks to higher education for solutions, to sustain democracy through an informed citizenry, to right the wrongs of bigots.  That is a university; that is Radford. Dr. Hemphill knows that colleges are here to help people live the American Dream and to help our world advance beyond its wildest dreams.  He will live that every day and shout it from these Blue Ridge mountain tops. ‘’

While classes were not canceled for the inauguration, many students attended the event. One sophomore political science major, Destiny Parker from Virginia Beach, said she wanted to come because Hemphill is so accessible to students. “You can see him eating in the dining hall, and he will get his picture taken with you,” she said.  As for his speech, Parker, who is taking out student loans to attend college, said she liked the part about “how no one should be denied an education because of affordability.”

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