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September 30, 2021 · OPINION

Paul Trible changed the trajectory of CNU

Former U.S. Sen. and Congressman Paul Trible (center) announced last week that he will retire after a quarter-century as president of Christopher Newport University.
By Roger Chesley
The Virginia Mercury

Paul Trible – visionary, top showman, eternal optimist – is calling it quits from the academic institution he’s led for a quarter-century. His distinctive stamp will remain for decades at Christopher Newport University, the Peninsula site he has transformed so dramatically that it hardly resembles the place where he became president in 1996.

I usually hesitate to employ such superlatives and descriptions in my columns. Not today.

Mr. Trible, a former Republican U.S. senator and congressman from the commonwealth, announced last week in a video message he’ll retire at the end of the 2021-22 school year. He had taken a sabbatical early this year to care for his wife, Rosemary, who’s fighting an autoimmune disease. Trible will turn 75 in December, and he explained he wanted to spend more time with his family, including his children and grandchildren.

He has become synonymous with CNU, much as President William Harvey has at nearby Hampton University. (Dr. Harvey, too, plans to retire in 2022 after 44 years at the helm there.)

“Thank you for embracing the dream that working together, we could create another great university for America,” Mr. Trible noted in the video. “Together, we have made that audacious dream a reality.”

I’ve been hearing such unabashed confidence — detractors would say needless hyperbole — from Mr. Trible since the late 1990s. That’s when I was part of the (Newport News) Daily Press editorial board, and the onetime lawmaker invited our members to campus to hear, in great detail, his plans to construct a “take your breath away beautiful” arts building at CNU.

Had memes been a thing back then, one would’ve been quickly posted. A colleague and I repeated the catchphrase frequently, chuckling as we mimicked Trible, the consummate salesman.

It ain’t bragging, though, if you can back it up. Mr. Trible’s feats are even more impressive because he didn’t have a background in academia before he was appointed president. That’s a rarity.

The look of the campus, stature of the institution, and rankings of the incoming students are dramatically different from when Trible assumed the presidency from his predecessor, Anthony Santoro. Trible deserves his props – even with his go-to quotations.

Through a university spokesman, he declined my request for an interview. That’s surprising, since he was more than eager to bend my ear two decades ago about all things CNU.

Today, the university is still relatively young; it opened in 1961 as a two-year branch of the College of William and Mary with only about 170 students. Christopher Newport later became a four-year college, gained independence from W&M, and then became a university.

Mr. Trible became president several years after an unsuccessful bid for governor. The place he inherited still had a reputation as a sleepy, uninspiring community college. It was mostly a commuter school, with very little on-campus housing.

Nor did the public university have many champions in the General Assembly.

Longtime professor Quentin Kidd was surprised when he joined CNU in the mid-1990s. He moved there one summer and said the campus was “totally dead.” Dr. Kidd, now the dean of the College of Social Sciences, thought he might spend just a couple of years there before moving on, probably to a larger university.

Things, however, were about to change drastically – and for the better – at the Newport News institution.
Shortly after Mr. Trible took the reins, the onetime U.S. senator convinced legislators in Richmond that CNU deserved better funding. His background in the U.S. Capitol provided instant credibility in the state Capitol. He secured a 21 percent increase in the university’s budget, compared to the 4 percent hike scheduled under his predecessor.

Mr. Trible began recruiting hard in Northern Virginia, a spot that CNU hadn’t gone after previously. The effort, Dr. Kidd told me, eventually produced thousands more applications from that part of the state. “So you could become more selective,” Dr. Kidd added.
Then there was the massive effort to raze, build and overhaul the look and feel of the campus. Since Mr. Trible joined the university, it has completed more than $1 billion in capital construction, including more than 40 major projects. The university has bought or acquired more than 120 residential and commercial properties, and the campus footprint has grown from 100 acres to 260 acres today.

Other comparisons between 1996 and 2020 are just as stark, according to the university: The number of full-time students grew from 2,920 to 4,739. The number of residential students rose tenfold, from 381 to 3,810. The incoming freshman GPA went from 2.8 to 3.8.

The six-year graduation rate was a middling 35 percent in 1996. Last year, it was 80 percent. That’s below the mark at the University of Virginia, but definitely within the ballpark.

The endowment a quarter-century ago was still in the six figures. It’s now at $54 million.

Nor was the president content to overlook sports. He oversaw, for example, the creation of a football program and the construction of a football stadium for the team to play in. The Division III competitor started play in 2001.

The push for college football was about more than just athletics, John R. Lawson II, executive chairman of the W.M. Jordan construction company and Mr. Trible’s neighbor, told me. The company has constructed more than 20 buildings on campus.

Mr. Saturday home games bring alumni back to campus, boost morale and donations, and get alumni more involved in school activities, Lawson said. “If you’re going to do a transformational change of a university,” he added, “you have to do a lot of things simultaneously.”

Controversies have happened over the years, too. That’s almost impossible to avoid over such a lengthy tenure as Mr. Trible’s.

The university’s expansion caused friction when it took properties in older, established communities. Modifications of roads in or near the university caused complaints.

Mr. The president also drew criticism in 2020 during the racial reckoning over the death of George Floyd. Mr. Trible wrote a letter that decried property destruction during protests, without fully acknowledging the institutional racism that caused the protests in the first place. Critics called him tone deaf; Mr. Trible later apologized.

People I interviewed, however, accentuated the positive. “Paul is a visionary,” said longtime Newport News Mayor McKinley Price. “He will paint a picture of what could be. And then shows you what needs to be done to get there.”

The university is an extension of Mr. Trible. He has created a legacy that has far surpassed his record in Washington – and he accomplished it right in Newport News.
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