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Q&A with LaVerne Harmon, Wilmington University’s first African-American female president

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LaVerne Harmon, an executive vice president since 2014, will succeed Jack Varsalona as president in 2017.

LaVerne Harmon, executive vice president since 2014, will succeed Jack Varsalona as president in 2017.


by Christi Milligan

Executive Vice President LaVerne Harmon was unanimously approved by Wilmington University’s Board of Trustees last month as the successor to current President Dr. Jack Varsalona.

Harmon will be the first African-American woman to be named the president of a university in the state of Delaware. She began working at Wilmington University in 1989 and held numerous positions while earning undergraduate and graduate degrees from Wilmington University and a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Pennsylvania. She has played key roles in the university’s internal operations, strategic planning and growth since becoming executive vice president in 2014.

Wilmington University has experienced tremendous growth in the last decade under Dr. Varsalona’s helm. What are some of your strategic plans for the schools as you assume the presidency?
Well, it’s a bit premature to discuss my strategies, since Dr. Varsalona will be president through June and I respect that. I’ll look forward to revisiting your question in July when I officially assume the role of president, but I can certainly tell you that a main focus will be on sustaining our enrollment growth and continuing to provide excellent, relevant and affordable academic programs. We will also focus on providing even more viable and relevant opportunities and services for our growing international student body.

What are some of Wilmington University’s strengths?
Our university has made a real difference in our students’ lives – many who would not have had the means or opportunity to succeed otherwise. We certainly value research, but Wilmington University is a teaching-based institution rather than a research-based one, which means that we put students first. We exist solely to serve students, and clearly, that is our greatest strength. Working adults choose Wilmington University to improve or enhance their careers because we offer convenient, flexible schedules that help them balance work, school and personal responsibilities. That’s a big deal for working adults, and most of our students hold down part-time or full-time jobs.

What are some of Wilmington University’s challenges?
We serve more than 21,000 students. To some, that may sound challenging. And perhaps it is a challenge to serve each one of those students on an individual basis, providing for them the tools they need to succeed. But to us, it’s a privilege, and we take that very seriously. It’s why we exist.

Technology is also at the forefront of our growth strategy and we embrace the requirements of this technologically advanced world. We are a leader in online education and the majority of our programs are offered face-to-face or 100 percent online. That carries with it an enormous technical responsibility, and we are constantly perfecting those capabilities.

Can you address Wilmington University’s position as a higher education force in the Delaware landscape and how that will continue to evolve?
As a private, nonprofit organization, we serve thousands of students and employ staff statewide. We are one of the fastest growing universities in the country because we put students first. We have six locations throughout Delaware, so we cater to students in all three counties. Adjunct instructors who bring real-world experiences into our classrooms teach many of our courses. Regarding impact, our alumni have become leaders in the state, particularly in the education field, where 40 percent of all education professionals in Delaware hold Wilmington University degrees. That’s just one example. There are countless alumni from all of our colleges who are making a difference in their communities.

What are the biggest challenges to today’s college students?
One of their biggest challenges is affording tuition. And we’re committed to keeping education affordable. That’s always been part of our mission. Our financial aid professionals don’t just hand out forms; they talk students through the processes, helping them to understand what they are borrowing and what their debt will be once they graduate. Through the on-campus $tand By Me program, we also offer exit counseling, so students can leave college aware of their fiscal responsibilities. They don’t graduate with the kind of debt that, sadly, has burdened millions of students nationwide.

Who have been some mentors to you who have challenged you?
My first and most important mentor was my mother, Laura Thomas. She taught me to respect myself – and others. She taught me empathy and generosity, particularly for those less fortunate. I learned from her the value of education and she motivated me to achieve at my highest level.

Dr. Jack Varsalona is a significant influence in my current position as executive vice president, and our leadership styles are very similar. He never focuses on what someone can’t do, but rather on what he or she can do. He’s a visionary who plays to peoples’ strengths, honors their differences and who leads with passion and confidence. Dr. Audrey Doberstein, my previous boss, who, by the way, was a very strong woman, was also a visionary. Like Dr. Jack Varsalona, she created a culture of caring and concern for students.

The Honorable Joseph Farnan, the chairman of Wilmington University’s Board of Trustees, is a man of integrity, fairness and excellent judgment.

Irénée du Pont, our former chair and current board member, is a man of high intelligence and significant accomplishment, yet he’s incredibly humble.

Because of their formidable leadership styles, these mentors have challenged me to be the best I can be.

You are the first African-American woman to be named the president of a university in Delaware. What does that mean to you?
There are not enough high-level women leaders in higher education nationally, regardless of race. But there are certainly fewer female African-American leaders who hold prestigious university positions. My hope is that women like me can carve a path for those who will follow, and I feel incredibly proud to have been given this opportunity by the Board of Trustees and Dr. Varsalona.

Varsalona recently announced his retirement, effective June 30, 2017.

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