The Hemphill Years
If you have had the opportunity to listen in on one of the hundreds of speeches President Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D., has delivered as Radford University’s seventh president, you are likely aware of the quote by American scientist George Washington Carver.
It is President Hemphill’s signature quote, and one he manages to weave into not only his words, but the way in which he lives his life.
“I believe in that,” President Hemphill said one busy day this spring in his Martin Hall office. “I think about my distinct and legitimate reason. That is what I focus on — not my legacy.”
On the afternoon of April 21, 2021, President Hemphill, relaxed and reflective, spoke of the many milestones, challenges, partnerships and people that have marked his historic service to Radford University.
Although he does not like to label it a legacy, his tenure here has been monumental. His legacy is one of a bold vision that came to life in so many “distinct and legitimate ways.”
From the very beginning of your presidency in July 2016, you have stressed the importance of transparency and campus engagement. You have kept the campus community informed throughout your tenure with numerous updates through various messaging approaches — State of the University addresses; consistent email communication; meetings with our campus senates; cross-campus conversations (United As One Radford Family); and most recently, Zoom Q&As related to the COVID-19 global health pandemic.
Why do you value transparency so much, and how do you think it supports and strengthens the campus community?
I value transparency because I firmly believe every faculty and staff member and student on this campus has a vested interest in the success of this institution.
There are a lot of brilliant people in this community, and I think it is important to share information. Share successes, share challenges and share opportunities because it allows you to bring in additional perspectives and thoughts. It allows others to weigh in, and it can help guide and inform your decisions that will affect the entire Highlander family.
I have a very simple principle: if I know that we are dealing with a challenge, and it is something that is keeping me up at night, why would I do that alone? Why not have others up worrying with me?
You have a very bold vision for Radford University, one that you implemented from the very beginning of your presidency: “To transform Radford University into an innovative, premier university in the Commonwealth of Virginia and beyond with a keen focus on teaching, research and service.”
We have seen this vision come to life through the 2018-2023 Strategic Plan, “Embracing the Tradition and Envisioning the Future.” This was a huge undertaking that involved input from dozens of faculty, staff and students that was ignited by your leadership.
What has it been like to see the strategic plan become a reality?
As I think back, it is amazing to realize that we had more than 180 people engage in the comprehensive strategic planning process. We have witnessed, over the past five years, that many of the initiatives that were a clear area of focus for us have come to life, from academic excellence to fundraising.
There are a number of things that I am proud of, but for us to name health sciences as a signature for the institution and then be able to deliver Radford University Carilion (RUC) was critical. It allowed us to expand the footprint in areas of critical need across the Commonwealth and the nation in terms of these healthcare warriors. It is something that I am very excited about. It is very memorable on multiple levels.
What are some of your proudest achievements of the plan thus far?
When we talk about achievements and areas that have seen significant growth, understand that this is a collective effort. There are so many people who were involved. The biggest part of leadership is getting everyone to simply pull in the same direction and believe in the vision. That is always the greatest challenge, and we were able to successfully do that.
We were able to launch what was the very first competency-based program (IMPACT) of a four-year public institution in the Commonwealth, which was significant. I remember how excited we were when former Governor Terry McAuliffe came to campus and officially launched the program in cybersecurity and geospatial science. Then, we established Appalachian Support for Specialized Education Training (ASSET). We are three-plus years in that program, and we are approaching 6,000 learners. That is something very significant.
Another area that really spoke to me is the way that our donors and supporters stepped forward to make this happen.
Jack and Sandy Davis stepped forward in significant ways to support our campus and community and invest in our students with the naming of the Davis College of Business and Economics. That was something I will never forget. The way that Nancy E. Artis ‘73 and H. Pat Artis, Ph.D., stepped forward, believing in our students and what they are doing in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) was transformational.
Those transformative gifts will forever impact the lives of students on this campus.
We talk a lot about these major gifts, but there are so many people and so many donors from across the Commonwealth and country who step forward and support this institution every day. Because of their generosity, we have been able to grow our endowment by 42% over a five-year period. It is every single person who decides that he or she wants to invest in a Highlander’s education and experience. That is what has really allowed us to have such great momentum. I am extremely proud of the work we have done in fundraising.
Is there a particular person who influenced,
inspired and supported you throughout your Radford journey?
George M. Harvey Sr. (local businessman and founder of Harvey’s Chevrolet Cadillac Buick in Radford): George Harvey was a true gentleman who loved his family and cared for the entire Radford community.
He is someone who had an amazing journey in life that took him to the military as an 18-year-old after leaving this community and working on a farm.
He was also a boxer and was very, very good at it. He told me that his trainer once told him, after realizing his talent: ‘George, you’re small, but you hit hard.’
His journey was one that brought him back to Radford as a hard-working person. He started a service station and worked around the clock. He built that business to the point where he was able to sell the service station and buy his first cars out of Pennsylvania. That started what was Harvey’s. From there, it turned into a full-blown career and legacy.
He is someone I learned so much from as it relates to this community and the connection and power of making a difference for the people you have an opportunity to serve.
For the last six weeks of his life, I sat with him for an hour, hour and a half, once a week. We sat there and just talked. There were so many stories I had heard before, but we talked about them again and went deeper into some of those particular stories.
He is someone who will always be synonymous for me with this community and this campus because of who he was as a person.
You also talk regularly about the tremendous support you have received from your cabinet and the Board of Visitors.
What do these individuals mean to you?
I could not ask for a better Board of Visitors. I have had some amazing rectors, from Christopher Wade who installed me as the seventh President, to Mark S. Lawrence and my current rector, Robert (Bob) A. Archer. They have been absolutely amazing as individuals who truly care about this institution and are always sound counsel for me as I have many tough decisions to make.
Our Board members take their fiduciary responsibilities very seriously. They are always engaged in conversations around the future of the institution. When we went through our strategic planning process, they were actively engaged and challenged us to be innovative and continue to push and advance the institution.
From the beginning, Board members embraced me as an individual who they genuinely cared about. They wanted to make sure that they did everything they could to help me be successful as president. They cared for me first as Brian Hemphill, not President Hemphill. I will forever be indebted to the Board of Visitors for that work and that relationship.
My cabinet: we had the privilege of assembling one of the best teams in the Commonwealth of Virginia and beyond.
They are a group that loves this institution. They work early mornings, and they work late into the evening and weekends, all driving and pushing to make a difference. What is most impressive to me of this group is that all of them are talented beyond belief. What is so special about them is that they genuinely like each other. They care for each other. They would go to war for each other. It is so impressive when you are able to assemble a team that will put the team before one; before themselves; before I.
If they lead with that same passion, that same vigor and that same commitment to each other, they will continue to provide sound leadership for the next president of this institution.
Your family has been a very big part of your Radford University journey. We have come to know and respect your wife, First Lady Marisela Rosas Hemphill, Ph.D. Your children, Cruz, Catalina, Jordan and Jada, are growing and thriving.
What has it been like to have this type of support system?
It would be impossible to do this work and engage in leading a university like Radford without having a strong base of family support. It is a 24-hour-a-day commitment. There is always something going on. There are a lot of great opportunities for my family, but it does take a lot of time. Having my wife, Marisela, and my mother-in-law, Maria, by my side to support me has been truly amazing. This career would be impossible without that strong base of support and belief in what we do.
When I think about my children, Cruz, Catalina, Jada and Jordan, they have been around college campuses their entire life and have been exposed to some of the best facilities and programs in the country. Having my daughter be in contemporary dance and ballet and having my son engage and visit the Museum of Earth Sciences has been very powerful to watch.
Jordan came to Radford and was a part of this campus and community. He played on the basketball team and even got “Player of the Week.” Now, he is a Highlander forever. (Note: Jordan Hemphill graduated from Radford University this spring with a bachelor’s degree in communication.)
He will spend time this summer in Chapel Hill doing an internship with the Rams Club and Radford alumnus John Montgomery ’81. He wants to be an athletic director. He also accepted a scholarship to the University of Iowa. He is going to be a Hawkeye and go into sports administration. I think he is going to be an awesome athletic administrator, probably for the next 40 years. I am proud of him. I am proud of all of my children.
What have you learned from our student body?
Our students are absolutely amazing. There are no silver spoons there. They are coming from hard-working families and people who are providing their sons or daughters, or their grandkids, an opportunity in life. They are sending them to Radford University with many hopes and dreams, and it is our responsibility to help bring that dream to life.
I see so much of myself in Radford University students. A college degree gave me a gift, and it was a gift that changed my life. I understand how transformative a college degree can be for every student we have on this campus. The opportunity to have conversations with them and laugh with them is so meaningful to me.
What have I learned from these students? I have always been proud of our students, but to stand and watch them during The Bigger Picture March and Rally. I have never been prouder.
The Bigger Picture March and Rally, a student-led and student-organized event, was held on Radford University’s campus on September 19, 2020. Hundreds of students, faculty and staff followed the University’s COVID-19 guidelines by physically distancing and wearing masks, while simultaneously addressing social injustice and the need for societal change.
I have learned from our students the importance of making sure, under no circumstance, do we allow that voice to not be heard clearly, loudly and respectfully. They did it with such great respect. I was so proud of all of our students and how they represented themselves during a time when many feared what the event might be. And, it was something that was so powerful.
How were you able to guide the University through one of its biggest challenges to date: the COVID-19 global health pandemic?
There is not a single university president in this country who can say that they anticipated this happening and what the playbook would be. This was a situation in which no one anticipated going 100% online within a matter of a week. No one anticipated the lengths we would have to go through in terms of protocols to ensure that we were able to keep our faculty, staff and students safe.
This was something that was a significant challenge to navigate. But, the one thing that I have always thought about in the midst of crisis is that you always put people first.
There are too many leaders who will ask, for example, ‘What is the legal exposure?’ Or, ‘What is the potential financial implication and impact?’
That is not where you start within the midst of the crisis. You start with the people. How are you protecting them? How are you communicating with them? How are you providing what they need in that moment?
I learned those lessons being at Northern Illinois University and going through unspeakable tragedy. We had a lone gunman come on campus and, within a matter of three minutes, 19 of our students were wounded, and five were killed. Going through that, you learn about leading in the midst of adversity. For me, that is still the most challenging situation I have ever experienced as a leader.
Navigating the pandemic, as tough as it was, I felt there was always calm and focus on what was needed to make sure that we were able to keep people safe and advance the institution.
There were many moments as we went through the pandemic, especially toward the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, when we saw our cases begin to rise, when some questioned whether we needed to go in another direction — to send students back home. It became clear as I listened to the public health officials, such as Dr. Noelle Bissell, that we needed to stay the course. We were doing all the right things. I listened to our experts, and as we stayed the course, we were very fortunate. We had an amazing team that worked on this every day, led by Chief of Staff and Vice President for Strategic Operations Ashley Schumaker, our COVID-19 coordinator. She and Vice President for Student Affairs Susan P. Trageser, Ed.D., worked arm-in-arm to make sure that we navigated this effectively. I am proud of what we learned and where we found ourselves.
What will you miss the most about your time here in the New River Valley?
I have developed lifelong friendships here.
Adam Scaggs ’05 is my best friend. He is a police detective for the Town of Blacksburg and husband of Caitlyn Scaggs ’07, Radford University’s former associate vice president for University Relations. He is like the little brother I never had. That is one of the things that I will say will always connect me to this area.
We knew Adam and Caitlyn before Caitlyn became an employee at Radford. We first knew them as business owners and alumni, and now they are lifelong friends. It has been absolutely amazing to be able to look at our kids as they have grown together and the friendships and relationships that they have developed. The fact that Adam and I will forever be lifelong friends and brothers is one of the things that I will always hold in great value, because you do not meet people like that every day.
There are other amazing people in the New River and Roanoke valleys who genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of others — salt-of-the-earth type people. I will remember the kindness of people who embraced me and my family when we moved here. I have appreciated the great support throughout this particular journey because there have been a number of highs, and there have been a number of lows.
What are some of those highs and lows?
One low moment that really stands out for me was the loss of Alexa Cannon. That was the most painful moment I experienced during my time here. To have a beautiful young person taken from us entirely too early was by far the most difficult moment, and my heart still goes out to her mother and father and entire family. You just cannot imagine anything ever happening like that to someone you love. Following Alexa’s passing, the Radford family came together to remember the love and light that her life brought to this campus and her family. Even in the face of tragedy, this family and this campus unite together.
A highlight was the $10 million we secured for Radford University Carilion.
That investment from the Commonwealth of Virginia truly has changed those students’ lives. These are individuals who have gone from paying tuition of $21,000 a year to $12,000 a year. I was more proud of that than any other moment because I know what it means in the lives of current and future students.
What do you hope your Radford University legacy will be?
I do not go to sleep at night, and I do not wake up in the morning thinking about my legacy. I am more focused on, ‘Are we doing things to make a difference for those who we have the privilege of serving?’
When you think about a legacy, it is always going to be collective. It is always going to be a number of individuals who decide to band together and do something bigger than themselves.
When all of this is said and done, I hope they would say that we made the institution better. I hope they would say that we increased fundraising. We were innovative in our work, and we were able to bring about significant growth in online education. I would hope they would say that the work we did in STEM was powerful and allowed us to grow our student enrollment. I would hope they would say that health sciences truly became a signature for the institution. I hope they would say that economic development improved because of projects, such as The Highlander hotel.
With all of those things, I hope they would say that it was all a collective effort. It is every vice president. It is every dean. It is every faculty member. It is every staff member. We are all working together to do something that is bigger than each of us. It is not about one individual. It is always about the collective.
What does it mean to you to be a part of the Radford family, a term you often use to describe the entire campus community?
The Radford family was more than a tagline. It was more than a slogan. To me, it was a way of our life. It was a part of the experience and the journey.
It was part of the expectation that, as a part of any family, you are going to have moments in which you disagree. But, at the end of the day, you have to come back together and figure out how to fix it, how to address the issue and how to work through it. You work through challenges to come out stronger and better as a campus, as a community and as a family.
The Radford family is a bold statement about who we can be and who we will become. I am proud of the fact that we have become a family, and it is something that I hope will stay with this campus for years and years to come.
Radford University is an amazing place with world-class people. It is a place that will forever be a part of me. I will always be a Highlander. I will always have a great deal of love and appreciation for the five years that I had the opportunity to serve this campus and this community.
I will always support Radford University from afar because I believe in the mission of this institution and the opportunities that we have to change lives.