A Passion for Higher Education
BY DAN WAIDELICH, M.S. '15
President Hemphill comes to the University following a decade of breakneck academic success, program development and construction. His plan? To keep the momentum going in attaining excellence while also identifying new opportunities for Radford University going forward in a rapidly changing higher education landscape.
“My vision is to transform Radford University into an innovative, premier university within the Commonwealth of Virginia and beyond, with focuses on teaching, research and service,” Dr. Hemphill said.
Courting such bold success is a daunting challenge for any leader, but President Hemphill has spent his career preparing to do just that.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
Spring Hope is a farming community on the western edge of North Carolina’s coastal plain — a low, flat region where the soil is good and tobacco is king.
It was a great place to grow up,” said President Hemphill, who learned as much about the world from his farming days as his college days. “That hard work was an opportunity to meet really great people and learn the work ethic that defines who I am today.”
Growing up, Dr. Hemphill aspired to be a good citizen of his community. That involved getting a college degree (he was the first in his family to be afforded that life-changing opportunity) and returning to use his skills to better his home.
That plan took an unexpected turn when he fell in love with academia and set off on a career in higher education that has taken him around the country.
Growing up in Spring Hope may sound familiar to those growing up in Radford, as well as the other communities of the New River Valley. Both towns prospered thanks to railroads, both are in the heart of farm country, both retain their small-town charm and both embrace hard work and perseverance.
These connections are not lost on the new president, who is happy to be a part of a community that feels so close to his roots.
“This feels like home,” President Hemphill said.
Radford University is more diverse than ever. Students from around the Commonwealth, country and world live and learn on campus together.
Many, however, have backgrounds similar to President Hemphill: whether they are from a small town or an urban neighborhood, 37 percent of Highlanders are first-generation students. And, according to the president, that changes the way the University needs to engage with many of our students.
“I can say that you experience college very differently, and we need to ensure that each and every one of our students can be successful here on campus,” President Hemphill said.
He will work hard for other students as well. Two key focal areas of his administration are student success, including retention and graduation rates, and strategic enrollment growth.
President Hemphill’s vision for Radford University is to be an institution that supports students making their first steps into higher education, whether they are poring over recruitment materials or attending Summer Bridge programs. After students first arrive, that support must continue. It will be imperative to look for new ways to ensure students succeed from orientation to graduation.
“When students come to a college or university campus, they have hopes and dreams. They want to be successful,” President Hemphill said. “We will be doing everything possible to ensure that they stay on track toward graduation.”
President Hemphill’s administration will also work hard to manage the cost of education moving forward. Mindful of increases in costs and the high expectations for programs and facilities, the president will work to ensure all who earn their place have access to a Radford education.
“I don’t think anyone wants the pendulum to swing to the point of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,’” he said. “It’s so important for us to ensure we’re being intentional about keeping a Radford education as affordable as possible, going out to raise private dollars, while ensuring students are able to attend Radford University.”
AN ACADEMIC LIFE
When President Hemphill left Spring Hope, he didn’t have to go far for a first-rate undergraduate experience. He found his initial passion for journalism and communication fulfilled at St. Augustine’s University, a historically black college in Raleigh. He also found inspiration as a brother of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
“It continues to be an important part of me, the mission of our organization of scholarship, leadership and service,” President Hemphill said of his Greek Life background.
That drive toward service surfaced again while he pursued a master’s degree at Iowa State University, where he was offered an opportunity to move into an administrative position. He seized the opportunity and, now, more than 20 years later, he has an impressive list of titles and degrees:
President of West Virginia State University; Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at Northern Illinois University; Associate Vice Chancellor and Dean of Students at the University of Arkansas–Fayetteville; Ph.D. in Higher Education, University of Iowa; Master of Science in Journalism and Mass Communication, Iowa State; and Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Communication, St. Augustine’s University.
But as all true educators will tell you, it is not the pursuit of honors and accolades that keeps him going.
“This is my passion,” President Hemphill said. “When I think about the importance of the work we do every single day in the lives of young men and young women, it’s critical. This is my love.”
RADFORD UNIVERSITY TODAY
Over the past decade, Radford University has experienced many changes to its academic offerings. From doctoral programs to the Scholar-Citizen Initiative, from international education to online learning, the University is positioned to serve a broad variety of communities.
And that is one reason the new president wanted the job.
“Radford is a university that has amazing faculty, strong academic programs, a great service orientation and a reputation as being one of the best in the South,” he said.
According to President Hemphill, the foundation for future success has already been laid. Now that he has arrived, he will task his administration to listen to students, faculty, staff, alumni and others to discover what niches should be explored and mined for opportunity. The University has begun work on a new strategic plan, which will identify these niches.
One opportunity already on the table is in the expansion of online learning at Radford, as well as an expansion of research. While face-to-face interaction will always be the cornerstone of the institution, President Hemphill sees a future where Radford University can provide students in a wide selection of digital programs with the same high-caliber education they would receive on campus.
For the president, however, it is as important to honor tradition as it is to grow and change, and the Radford University tradition is one of strong academic programs and a reputation for outstanding faculty-student relationships and research opportunities.
“We have to help the entire Commonwealth of Virginia understand all of the attributes that make this campus very special and unique,” he said.
ALL ABOUT FAMILY
The on thing most special to President Hemphill, the one greater passion than higher education, is family.
When the president took up residence in the Governor Tyler House this summer, he was joined by his wife Dr. Marisela Rosas Hemphill, or, as he says, “the glue that holds everything together”; their twin 3-year-olds, Catalina and Cruz; and mother-in-law Maria Rosas.
In addition to his family in Radford, President Hemphill has a daughter, Jada, who is a senior at the University of Central Arkansas majoring in communication sciences and disorders, and a son, Jordan, who is a rising senior at Bentonville High School in Arkansas.
“We like to spend time together,” said President Hemphill, when asked about his idea of a perfect day. “That’s very special because there is not a lot of time off in this profession.”
And, the Radford University community can expect the Hemphill family to be a large part of the president’s administration.
“We try to integrate the family into everything that we do with the University,” he said. “And we’re looking forward to Catalina and Cruz growing up on the Radford campus where they will be able to have such great experiences.”
BUILDING A COMMUNITY
It should be no surprise that one of Dr. Hemphill’s goals for the early days of his presidency is to truly become a part of the Radford University family.
One of the opportunities that excites him the most is getting away from his desk and out on the campus.
“I like to get out and engage with people one on one,” he said. “It’s important for me to have that face-to-face interaction and for people to feel like they know me as a person.”
He began reaching out after his appointment as president last December, calling and emailing faculty, staff, students and alumni to find out what they love about Radford University. That engagement will continue, whether through campus dialogues, alumni events or friendly social media updates from his Twitter account @BrianOHemphill.
Community is at the center of several of Dr. Hemphill’s key focuses, especially in university branding, philanthropy, alumni engagement, and economic development and community partnership.
“One thing I do know for certain is that if we don’t define ourselves — who we are and what we’re about as an institution — others will define us,” he said, challenging all past, present and future Highlanders to recognize their outstanding experiences and share them. “We need everyone to engage and speak about the greatness of our university!”
President Hemphill hopes those conversations will not only encourage prospective students to look to Radford for their education, but bring alumni back into an active relationship with the University.
“Inspiring alumni and friends to engage is simply finding something that taps into the things they are passionate about,” he said. “We will be able to do that successfully. I’m quite confident in that. When you look at the strengths of the institution and what we are able to provide, it will align with our alumni base and our donors.
“Since Radford University’s founding in 1910, the University has made service to the Commonwealth a cornerstone of its mission, and through our focus on economic development and community partnerships,” said President Hemphill. “Radford University is well positioned to promote the social needs of Southwest Virginia, serve as an economic driver in the region and partner with business and industry.”
Part of building a community is weathering the darker challenges that arise. President Hemphill, a published author with a special research interest in gun violence on college campuses, has one idea to help prevent storms from brewing.
“A part of what we have to do is to make sure we create a caring community,” he said. “We have to create a culture in which people are more apt to check on one another. A safe community is a community that fundamentally cares about one another.”
One way in which the president will help build such a community is through supporting the rise of service as a pillar of the Radford experience. Going back to his days as an undergraduate, President Hemphill has engaged in community and university service initiatives and will continue to do so.
Radford already offers many community service activities, and students frequently volunteer in community businesses and organizations. Dr. Hemphill will work to strengthen and increase service opportunities, and will join faculty, staff and students in lending a hand in the community.
“When we encourage service, we create strong citizen leaders that are prepared to go and provide strong direction and leadership in the Commonwealth and beyond,” he said.
After President Hemphill assumed his post in July, he joined the faculty, staff and administration in preparations for a new school year. His outreach has also included hosting several receptions with alumni across Virginia and engaging with local and regional business leaders.
“This is an amazing university that has great people very much committed to providing opportunities to students,” President Hemphill said. “I’m excited about our journey moving forward as a Radford family!”