Astra Armstrong had seen many presidential candidates walk into the Norfolk State University conference room, all carrying with them different personalities and entrances, prepped with different resumes.
And while Armstrong, the Student Government Association president, was impressed already by the resume of the next candidate to enter the room, it was more how Ohio State’s Senior Vice President for Student Life graced the room that attracted her attention than anything else.
A smile, a firm handshake and a confident, executive demeanor all complemented the simple touch Javaune Adams-Gaston added to her interview: she knew Armstrong’s name.
“You can judge someone by how they present themselves when they come into a large room,” she said. “Without me really having to say anything, she knew my name. So therefore, she did her research to see, ‘OK, this is the SGA President. She is a representative of the Board of Visitors.’ That really meant a lot to me.”
As Adams-Gaston sat facing the crowd of the Norfolk State Presidential Search Committee, she captivated the wide range of members. When the long list of candidates had been narrowed down to four semifinalists and was handed to the Board of Visitors, the decision was unanimous: Adams-Gaston would become the seventh president at Norfolk State. The hire was made official Feb. 22.
In picking Adams-Gaston to become the university’s next president, Joan Wilmer, rector of the Board of Visitors, said Norfolk State is hiring for the future. It is bringing in a president ready to lead the university through a period of growth.
“We are wanting to grow. We are positioned for growth. We have done a lot internally to stand up that way,” Wilmer said. “Now we just need to know how to get that done, and she’s absolutely the right choice.”
The search for the new president began shortly after former-president Eddie Moore announced in September 2017 that he would be retiring. Vice Rector of the Board Melvin Stith stepped in effective Jan. 1, 2018 to become interim president while a search began.
Norfolk State then hired a search firm, Greenwood/Asher & Associates, to compile a list of candidates that fit the profile. Wilmer said that profile covered everything from “executive and operational experience” to various leadership and character traits to the skills and abilities required to be a national president.
The firm then hosted listening sessions where students, faculty and other members of the community provided input as to what they were looking for in the next president.
From there, a search committee comprised of a diverse panel of members of the Norfolk State community was brought together. There were several members of the Board, NSU Foundation, faculty senate and alumni association, as well as a representative from the student government, a community leader, administrative and faculty representative, and classified staff representative.
Jean Cunningham, a member of the search committee and representative of the Board, said it was critical to ensure the committee had voices from all over the Norfolk State community given the impact the new president will have.
That array of voices ensured no stone was left unturned in the questioning of Adams-Gaston for the post of president. During the interview, she fielded questions about how she will work with the student body, what type of fundraising impact she will have on the university, how she can increase academic enrollment and how athletics play a role in the university environment.
Additionally, she was asked about how to deal with skepticism about the needs of historically black colleges and how she would run a modern HBCU where students compete worldwide, B.K. Fulton, member of the search committee and Board representative, said.
All the questions, she handled with aplomb.
“She said that the world is not a perfect place, so you have a standard of excellence and then you prepare people to deal with the world that they’re in and then also to shape the world you want to see,” Fulton said. “We were unanimously supportive of her candidacy.”
Cunningham said what stood out most to her about Adams-Gaston was her familiarity with HBCUs, “and what appeared to be a true passion or interest in coming in and doing what she can do to keep Norfolk State on course.”
In staying on course, Norfolk State would be increasing both its graduation and retention rates, Cunningham said. According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s website, Norfolk State had a 48 percent graduation rate of students entering the 2009-10 school year and a 70 percent first-year to second-year retention rate. That 48 percent figure represents students graduating in an extended time-to-completion or who were still continuing their enrollment in the final year of observation.
What proved vital to Adams-Gaston’s candidacy was her experience working at Ohio State in her current position, which she has held since January 2009. Wilmer said she’s been an executive overseeing a large operation in Columbus, which will be a transition for Adams-Gaston moving to a university with a total enrollment in the fall of 2018 of 5,204.
“Her experience from a student perspective in student affairs, life of a student, how to build campuses that help to provide an environment that incubates success, that all played very strongly in our decision,” Wilmer said.
Those student-centered topics were the focus of Armstrong’s questions during the interview. Will Adams-Gaston continue an open-door policy for students like past presidents at the university have had? Will she be seen at football games and showing off her school spirit?
Armstrong said all of those can help boost morale and even help “gear negative people to a positive atmosphere.”
“You may not be able to fix everything, but they at least knew you were there and you listened,” Armstrong said.
As Adams-Gaston nears her official start in June, she will continue to meet with Board members and the outgoing administration to plan the transition into her new role. Fulton wants to see her learn the Norfolk community, both in business and local government, while building her team around her vision.
Long-term, Cunningham wants to see her stay at least 10 years.
“Everyone’s excited about her profile, the experience, her hands-on experience and the genuine love they immediately pick up from her,” Wilmer said. “Trust their life and their career. The career starts with the university experience and immediately she has gained those confidences.”