Virginia State University’s new president settles in
By Karin Kapsidelis, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Ettrick, Va. –On his second day on campus, Keith T. Miller set out to meet his future — and quickly ran into someone whose roots run deep into Virginia State University’s past.
Miller, who took over as VSU’s 13th president Thursday, stopped to chat with Parris Bowles, a junior who’s the third generation in his family to attend the university in Ettrick.
Bowles’ parents and three older siblings are alumni, and his grandmother, who’s now 95, graduated in 1935.
“That’s awesome,” Miller told him.
Getting acquainted with his new campus is high on Miller’s agenda. He said he really didn’t know much about VSU when he was approached by the search firm hired to help find a successor to Eddie N. Moore Jr., who retired last month after 17 years as president.
But Miller said he studied VSU’s long-range strategic plan and saw a university heading in an exciting direction.
“It’s a very solid HBCU with a tremendous and storied history,” he said, referring to VSU’s designation as one the nation’s historically black colleges and universities.
Miller was president for six years of Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, a predominantly white school that’s about the same size as VSU, which had an enrollment of 5,366 this past year.
Miller said he will be surveying VSU’s alumni, students, faculty and staff before setting the school’s priorities and determining “what we should emphasize and perhaps what we should de-emphasize.”
But he said diversity is an important goal.
“I think that diversity comes in a variety of ways,” he said. Bringing together students from a range of academic, economic and ethnic backgrounds prepares them “for the type of world they’re going to enter once they graduate.”
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Miller, who last month was in Japan for his role on the executive committee of the International Association of University Presidents, also plans to emphasize study-abroad and international education programs.
He’s looking at programs that proved successful at Lock Haven to determine whether they would be a good fit here. One such program sent all new faculty members abroad for a week for workshops and to explore potential partnerships.
Another requires all freshmen and transfer students to have laptop computers to expand their access and opportunities for research.
Former colleagues in Pennsylvania cite that initiative as one of Miller’s main accomplishments at Lock Haven.
“That’s unique in our system,” said Peter H. Garland, executive vice chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, of which Lock Haven belongs.
The laptop program, and the wireless technology infrastructure required to back it up, took “a lot of heavy lifting,” he said.
Garland and others in Pennsylvania describe Miller as a good listener who’s adept at fostering conversations among groups with differing opinions.
“Keith is very open, very engaging. He listens honestly to the issues,” Garland said.
“He works hard to make everyone feel empowered,” said Deborah Erickson, Lock Haven’s provost. She said Miller made the university “much more collegial.”
John C. Cavanaugh, chancellor of the Pennsylvania system, said Miller “has a great ability to bring people together. He facilitates conversations very well.
“At the same time, after the discussion is over, he will make the decision,” he said.
He credits Miller with dramatically improving town-gown relationships. “You walk around the city of Lock Haven, and everybody likes the guy,” he said.
Guy A. Graham, chairman of Lock Haven University’s council of trustees, was chairman of the search committee that hired Miller. He said he’s sorry to see Miller leave.
“He has a lot of charisma. He can work the room,” Graham said. “He commands a presence when he walks in.”
Graham said he knew the time was coming when Miller, who is 55, would leave, but “I was hoping it would be a year or two yet. I understand these bright young presidents move on, and on.”
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Graham said Miller’s experience in the private sector — he worked in sales for Procter & Gamble Co. before he moved to academia — gave him the right cross-section of skills for the job.
The two became friends, he said, going on fly-fishing trips several times a year.
That’s a skill Miller said he has not quite mastered.
The joke with his fishing buddies was that the little fish he managed to catch “always have potential,” he said, adding that it was a fun group.
“We fished and we ate dinner and socialized a bit, as well as tried to do the best we could for Lock Haven University,” he said.
Although he enjoyed fishing, he and his wife, Nicolette, prefer listening to music, going to the theater, and keeping up with two sons’ activities, he said.
Miller and son Kameron, who turns 12 this week, already had moved into the President’s House a stone’s throw from his office on campus.
Last week, his wife was with 10-year-old Kyle on a Cub Scout camping trip on the Appalachian Trail.
Miller grew up in Phoenix and received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Arizona.
His mother was a music teacher, he said, but “I boycotted that. I wanted to play football or something instead, which was not a smart thing in the long run.”
Now, he’s more interested in spectator sports.
“The bones are older,” he said.