100 People to Meet: Educators
Ranked as CNBC’s Top State for Business in 2019, Virginia earned the distinction in part for its “wealth of colleges and universities,” lauded by CNBC as the nation’s best. These are some of the educators and administrators who are helping to preserve and grow that reputation.
Towuanna Porter Brannon
President, Thomas Nelson Community College
It takes a unique set of skills to oversee a school like Thomas Nelson, says Towuanna Porter Brannon, who takes the reins of Virginia’s fifth-largest community college in January. A first-time president but longtime administrator, she’s served at various two-year and four-year schools, including the New York Institute of Technology and North Carolina’s Mitchell Community College. “Federal funding for community colleges has diminished,” she says. “Students are faced with so many competing priorities as parents and caretakers, working multiple jobs. The challenge is to prepare them with the best education using these limited resources.” Brannon, who holds a doctorate in education from Fordham University in New York City, will immediately focus on helping the approximately 11,000-student, multiple-location college work closer with local businesses to provide “the finest talent pool available.”
Director, The Stephen S. Fuller Institute, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University
Do facts still matter to you? Then, in the greater Washington, D.C., area, Jeannette Chapman is the wonk to know. The director of GMU’s Fuller Institute is one of the area’s most trusted analysts, crunching the data on a grand spreadsheet of regional concerns — housing trends, the growing technology sector, the area population base and the long-term economic effects of COVID-19. “I examine all of the factors that currently, or could potentially, affect the region’s growth,” she says. That doesn’t mean everyone listens. “We always hope there is more that is acted on with our research,” she says diplomatically. “Some people tend to focus on what’s in the next three months and not concentrate on the important structural changes.”
Executive director and vice president, Virginia Tech Innovation Campus
Lance Collins knows how to connect academia with the technology sector, and how to unite people from distant communities. In his prior job as Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering at the Cornell University College of Engineering, the new leader of Virginia Tech’s $1 billion Innovation Campus was responsible for spearheading Cornell University’s ambitious Cornell Tech campus in New York City. Collins not only diversified Cornell’s enrollment to include more female and minority students, he forged close ties between Cornell’s Ithaca, New York, campus and Cornell Tech, 234 miles away on Roosevelt Island — nearly the same distance between Tech’s Blacksburg location and the Innovation campus in Alexandria. Collins earned his bachelor’s in chemical engineering at Princeton, and master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Pennsylvania.
President, Tidewater Community College
Marcia Conston oversees Virginia’s second-largest community college. With 32,000 students, Tidewater Community College was founded in 1968 and is considered the biggest higher ed and workforce training provider in Hampton Roads. Conston became TCC’s sixth president in January 2020, having spent more than half of her 30-year educational career as the vice president for enrollment and student success services at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she grew student enrollment, expanded federal work study programs and established scholarship opportunities. The Jackson State University graduate holds her master’s from Hood Theological Seminary in North Carolina and earned her doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi. She counts freelance writing as one of her hobbies and has authored two books about religion and spirituality.
Professor and director of the School of Education, Virginia Tech
On the job since August, Kristin Gehsmann was previously a professor and chair of East Carolina University’s Department of Literacy Studies, English Education and History Education, where she fostered an inventive online master’s program, improved department rankings and raised millions for research projects. In addition to overseeing the Virginia Tech School of Education, which offers 18 master’s degrees, 20 doctoral degrees and 14 teaching licensure programs, the alum of Central Connecticut State University and the University of Vermont will also work in the classroom as a professor. The former elementary school teacher authored two textbooks on literacy development and assessment and has said that her focus at Tech will be on “equity and innovation in education. We need to put ladders in place so more people can reach their goals.”
Dean, Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts
The new head of VCU’s prestigious arts program says that she wants to keep true to the school’s success. “But my goal is a little different than most deans. I want to grow the school in ways that are about creative innovation, not just increasing the student body or building construction.” An art historian, Carmenita Higginbotham earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the universities of Minnesota, Massachusetts and Michigan, respectively, and was formerly the chair of the McIntire Department of Art at the University of Virginia. She’s also an expert on American popular culture — she dissected the oeuvre of Walt Disney for a recent PBS documentary and penned exhibition notes for the recent Edward Hopper exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “What I do is a balance between popular culture and high art. It’s culturally important,” she says. “And fun.”
Mary Dana Hinton
President, Hollins University
Being a leader during COVID times is like running a marathon, says Mary Dana Hinton, who in August became president of the women’s liberal arts college, known for its English and creative writing programs. “You don’t know where it ends or where you are in the race,” she says. She’s used to big challenges. As president of the private College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota, Hinton oversaw a record $100 million fundraising campaign and $43 million in construction. The small-town, Kittrell, North Carolina, native recalls being discouraged by school counselors from seeking a higher education but didn’t listen, eventually earning a doctorate in religious education, a master’s degree in clinical child psychology and a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “Every human being wants to be seen, heard and valued,” she says, “so my leadership style is to see, hear and value each person I encounter.”
Nicole Thorne Jenkins
Dean, McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia
Nicole Thorne Jenkins business career started early, as a bookkeeper for her parents Maryland waste removal business. “I was good at math but originally wanted to be an engineer,” the University of Iowa graduate recalls. Formerly a professor and vice dean of the Gatton College of Business at the University of Kentucky, she comes to the distinguished McIntire School, with its 700 undergraduate and 300 graduate students, having practical first-hand industry experience from working at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “There’s a gap between what you learn in the classroom and what you do day to day in business,” she says, adding that the pandemic is changing the ways business is being done. “Things are shifting. As the leading business school, we have to be responsive to that.”
Acting president, Liberty University
After several embarrassing scandals related to former Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr., Tennessee-born Jerry Prevo is all about stability. He takes over Virginia’s largest university (one of the world’s largest Christian universities), having served as chairman of Liberty’s board of trustees since 2003. A University of Tennessee graduate, Prevo recently retired (after nearly a half century) as senior pastor for Anchorage Baptist Temple, which he essentially built from scratch into one of Alaska’s largest churches. A prominent evangelist and entrepreneur, Prevo has received criticism from the LGBTQ community for positions he’s taken over the years opposing gay rights. As chairman and CEO of Christian Broadcasting Inc., Prevo runs TV and radio stations in Alaska, where his church also offers preschool-to-high school education through Anchorage Christian Schools, the largest Christian educational network in the state.
Dean, Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University
GMU’s new Scalia Law dean isn’t just an accomplished academic leader, he’s an expert in distance learning, something every institution needs during a pandemic. In 2013, Kenneth Randall founded iLaw Ventures Distance Learning, a company that’s become an industry leader, partnering with 25% of law schools nationwide. He’s something of a legend at the University of Alabama where, during his two-decade tenure as dean of the law school, Alabama’s U.S. News & World Report law ranking jumped from No. 96 to 21. He was named one of the nation’s most transformative legal deans by Leiter’s Law School Reports. Randall holds doctoral and master’s degrees in international law from Columbia University; a master’s degree in law from Yale University; and a law degree from Hofstra University.
A. Benjamin Spencer
Dean and chancellor professor, William & Mary Law School
The new dean of America’s oldest law school, A. Benjamin Spencer is steeped in trailblazing. His father, the Hon. James R. Spencer, was Virginia’s first Black federal judge, and grandfather Dr. Adam Arnold helped integrate Notre Dame University. “I’m learning that being dean of a law school is a lot like running a business,” says the younger Spencer, who became the first African American dean of any William & Mary school in July. The former Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor at the University of Virginia says that he’s coming to W&M as a change agent. “I wasn’t brought here to just manage the school; I was hired to take it to the next level.” The Hampton native and father of nine children holds a bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College, a law degree from Harvard Law School and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.
President, George Mason University
GMU’s first African American president, Gregory Washington is a proven innovator in the field of dynamic systems, not just in the engineering sense but in the organizational. The first in his family to attend college, he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering from North Carolina State University and taught for 16 years at Ohio State University before becoming the first Black dean of the Samueli School of Engineering at the University of California, Irvine. During his tenure, Washington increased school enrollment, diversified the faculty, increased experiential learning and helped establish the Horiba Institute for Mobility and Connectivity. He also established OC STEM, one of the nation’s first initiatives to promote STEM education and careers in public schools.