Michelle Howard-Vital, 1952-2018

Tributes paid to first female president of US’ oldest historically black college

September 6, 2018
Michelle Howard-Vital

The first female president of America’s oldest historically black college has died.

Michelle Howard-Vital was born in Chicago in 1952 and studied for a BA in English (1974) and then a master’s in English teaching (1975) at the University of Chicago, later gaining a PhD in public policy analysis from the University of Illinois at Chicago (1983). An enthusiastic teacher, she was initially employed as an English instructor at the Central YMCA Community College in Chicago, where she sometimes said: “I cannot believe they are paying me so much – $10,000 [£7,769] – to have so much fun.”

After working at the University of Illinois at Chicago (1981-84) and then, as dean of adult and continuing education, at what is now Harold Washington College in Chicago (1984-86), Dr Howard-Vital took on a series of senior management roles across four states. She was dean for continuing education and non-traditional programmes, and assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, at Chicago State University (1986-91) and then associate vice-president for academic programmes at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania (1991-93). During a decade at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, she was vice-president for public service and extended education while also gaining tenure as a professor of specialist studies (1993-2003). She successfully forged links with Japanese universities to create courses relying on interactive video, oversaw the development of the campus television channel and raised more than $1 million in grants for the institution.

Next came jobs as associate vice-president for academic affairs at the University of North Carolina System (2002-06) and interim chancellor at Winston-Salem State University, also in North Carolina (2006-07). The current chancellor, Elwood Robinson, described Dr Howard-Vital as “a true leader” and “a passionate advocate for higher education who believed deeply in the mission of our nation’s historically black colleges and universities”. She proved his point when she was unanimously selected by the Pennsylvania State System board of governors to lead the country’s oldest historically black college, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania (founded as the African Institute in 1837), from 2007 to 2014. Major achievements included the creation of a new $44 million science centre and an additional 400-bed hall of residence.

After leaving Cheyney, Dr Howard-Vital was appointed provost (2016) and later interim president (2017) at Florida Memorial University, although illness forced her to step down. She joined forces with her daughter, Madelyn Vital, to contribute a chapter to a collection titled Michelle Obama’s Impact on African American Women and Girls (2018). She died of cancer on 21 August and is survived by her husband, Geri, her daughter and a stepson.


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