Impact of Virginia’s Visionary Heritage

August 17, 2013
Daily Press Op-Ed
Dr. John T. Dever, President
Thomas Nelson Community College

Recently, I had the honor of hosting Dana Hamel for a visit to Thomas Nelson Community College’s Historic Triangle Campus. Dr. Hamel, who celebrates his 90th birthday this month, was the founding Chancellor of the Virginia Community College System some 50 years ago. In that capacity, he played a major role in establishing the Thomas Nelson Hampton Campus in 1967, as well as setting up the other 22 community colleges across the Commonwealth. He knew that Thomas Nelson had long sought to complement its Hampton Campus with a second campus accessible to the Upper Peninsula. And he was delighted to tour our attractive, well-designed facility in Lightfoot that opened in 2009, serving the residents of Williamsburg and James City and upper York Counties.

I took the opportunity during the visit to ask Dr. Hamel to share his experiences with the early days of Virginia’s Community Colleges. As an administrator at VPI in the early 1960s (as Virginia Tech was then known), he recalled the phone call he received from Governor Albertis Harrison asking him to come to Richmond to head the Department of Technical Education. Under Governor Mills Godwin, that assignment evolved to leading the monumental effort to set up a statewide system of comprehensive community colleges.

Two key drivers influenced this development: economic and social. On the economic front, neighboring states, North and South Carolina, were highly successful in attracting new industries. Among their advantages were community colleges and technical schools providing a well-educated, trained workforce. Virginia needed to have its own version to be competitive. On the social front, the 1960s were a tumultuous time, particularly in Virginia where powerful forces aligned against each other over civil rights and racial integration, as manifested in the struggle over Massive Resistance. Establishing community colleges with open access was a major step in the pivot made by the Commonwealth away from the darker aspects of its past and towards the opportunities of a brighter future that included all Virginians.

Key organizational decisions were made in those founding years that have proven highly beneficial over the long term. One was that Virginia would not have separate junior colleges and technical schools, but a series of comprehensive community colleges providing both the first two years of baccalaureate education and occupational-technical programs preparing people of all ages directly for employment. Another formative decision was that Virginia would have a system of community colleges under a single governing board, not 23 institutions going their separate ways. This organization ensured statewide cohesion and coordination, balanced with the role of local college boards, appointed by the cities and counties, keeping individual colleges responsive to the distinctive needs of their respective regions.

Dr. Hamel also recalled the challenges of working with the major universities, which then had a number of two-year branch campuses throughout the state, and determining whether those campuses would be incorporated into the new community college system (as happened with Eastern Shore and Danville) or move towards independent status as 4-year institutions (as happened with Christopher Newport and George Mason). Gaining and maintaining support from the General Assembly was crucial, and his strong relationship with two powerful Peninsula legislators, Hunter Andrews in the Senate and Dick Bagley in the House, made a significant difference not only for Thomas Nelson but also for the other 22 community colleges.

Recalling his first visit to the site where the Thomas Nelson Hampton Campus is now located, Dr. Hamel said that he could get there only by what seemed a wayward series of back roads. The site was just bushes and trees at the time, but he knew Interstate 64 was being constructed and the location would ultimately prove to be highly visible and accessible. Accompanying him on that visit was Gordon Sweet from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, who informed him that Thomas Nelson would receive “the million dollar letter,” granting it preliminary approval to pursue accreditation as an institution of higher education.

Fortunately for the Peninsula, Dr. Hamel’s connection did not end when he left his position as Chancellor. He later played a leading role in the founding of CEBAF, now the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News.

Dr. Hamel’s visit was a reminder that visionary leaders are needed at significant points in history, and thanks in great part to his efforts, “It’s a great day to be alive in the Commonwealth!”— the signature line with which he always opened his speeches and which he still declares today with great enthusiasm.


Copyright © 2013, Newport News, Va., Daily Press