Trustees | General Education

CNU’s Trible has ‘no regrets’ from 20 years on the job

NEWPORT NEWS DAILY PRESS   |  March 5, 2016 by Jane Hammond

Paul Trible’s office is strategically located at the heart of Christopher Newport University’s campus.

He sits on the top floor of the newly completed Christopher Newport Hall, his office adjacent to a large mural of the Lion’s Bridge along the James River.

The building flanks a large green space in the middle of campus — named the “Great Lawn” — surrounded by academic buildings. Ringing this area is student housing, complemented by parking and athletic buildings.

All the buildings on the 240-acre campus are new since 1996, and Trible is right in the middle of them.

Trible can easily walk among students and staff, most of whom he loudly and happily greets. There are just over 5,000 students on the campus now, one of the many goals Trible publicly set when he first took office in 1996.

After his first 20 years on the job, Trible feels confident in the changes he’s spearheaded at CNU to move from a small, mostly commuter school to a liberal arts- and science-focused institution that draws students from across Virginia.

The university has consistently risen in college rankings, building a reputation on its curriculum. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has for the past two years named CNU’s general education requirements the best in public higher education. CNU is the only public institution to require all of the seven core academic subjects, which range from composition to science, that ACTA deems necessary for an ideal liberal arts curriculum.

To get to this point, Trible, 69, had to secure state funding and raise money to undertake the $1 billion in new buildings. There were other costs to get here — cutting various academic programs and raising tuition.

“When I came 20 years ago, in truth, Christopher Newport was going out of business,” Trible said. “The enrollment had been in decline for many years, and you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize we had to strike out in a different direction. So I said, ‘Look, we were born out of the College of William and Mary. Let’s return to our roots, let’s embrace the liberal arts and sciences, and let’s pursue a traditional student population.’ …

“We said, ‘We reject the notion of incremental progress. We’re in the business of dramatic transformation and everything we do will be done at the highest levels of excellence,’ ” he said. “And with the help of a lot of wonderful people, we’re there. We’re there. Few schools in America, if any, have come so far so quickly.”

Trible quickly cites his time representing Virginia in Congress as how he was able to make his vision for CNU come true. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1976 at age 29 and was re-elected until he ran for Senate in 1982. He left Washington after one term as senator.

He received his bachelor’s degree in history from Hampden-Sydney College in 1968, followed by a law degree from Washington and Lee University in 1971.

He was never a politician who “threw grenades, rather always endeavored to work across party lines,” he said. His first major change at CNU was raising money to build what became the Ferguson Center for the Arts, working with former Del. Alan Diamonstein to make it possible.

“Paul envisioned a first-rate institution, first-rate quality of education and second in appearance,” Diamonstein said. “He helped develop a school, created a vision for a school that not only prepared the students for their future but gave them a pleasing, pleasant atmosphere that they could be proud of. And he has a marvelous institution there now. It’s academically superb and it’s physically superb.”

As Trible reshaped CNU’s curriculum, programs that were deemed unfit for the liberal arts vision were axed. In 2002, the Board of Visitors voted to end nursing, the education department and the recreation, sport and wellness management departments.

Nurse shortages in the area made the decisions unpopular, as more than 90 percent of CNU graduates went on to work at local hospitals. The university later partnered with Newport News Public Schools to establish a five-year master of arts in teaching program to try to send graduates to city schools.

In 2002, students were denied the ability to enroll on a part-time basis, which led to complaints that the university would be less accessible to students who couldn’t afford full-time classes. At the same time, tuition rose nearly year-over-year, including a 15 percent jump in 2010.

And the physical footprint of the university grew as CNU bought nearby property to fuel the expansion. Some of the surrounding residential neighborhoods transformed into streets where families lived next door to college students.

The city of Newport News had to open up phone and email lines to address residents’ complaints about students in 2008. More academic cuts came in 2011, when the journalism concentration was eliminated.

Trible acknowledged the criticisms aimed at changes by CNU and said any headaches stemming from the cuts were worth it.

“Change generates resistance, and it was necessary to effect dramatic change, and we did so,” Trible said. “Happily I came from the world of politics, where I had come to understand that not everyone cheers you on every day. Overwhelmingly, people supported us from the beginning, but not everyone. But for years now people have been enthusiastically supportive because they now can see and feel.

“Early on, all we could do was make it up. All we could do is paint word pictures. All we could do was ask people to believe. Most people were willing to support our efforts. Some had real concerns, and some voiced those concerns. And I understood that, and I respected that.”

Jay Joseph, a senior vice president at Harvey Lindsay who served on the Board of Visitors from 2002 to 2010, attributed some of the changes to simply having to save money.

“My very first meeting on the board was essentially a crisis meeting to deal with budget cuts coming down from the state,” said Joseph. “In the course of my eight years, we cycled back to a second financial crisis. We clearly had to make some tough choices about priorities. A lot of that quite honestly was forced on us by the cut in state support. It’s no fun to make those decisions, but some of those decisions were controversial.”

Many current students, chosen from a more selective pool than 20 years ago, say the changes were worth it. Junior Ben Leistensnider said if CNU hadn’t changed, he and his older sister, a current senior, never would have considered applying.

In January, Leistensnider, who serves as the sports editor of CNU’s student newspaper, started a hashtag on Twitter, #20YearsofTrible, for students to share memories and stories about their president. Some tweets racked up 50 reshares as users thanked Trible, who practices an open-door policy to better talk with students.

Leistensnider said Trible and his wife, Rosemary, regularly invite students to their home not far from campus, a nearly 7,000-square-foot, $5 million property completed in 2008. Their adult children, Mary Katherine Peters Trible and Paul Trible III, live in Charlottesville and Richmond, respectively.

“You can actually see (Trible) on campus. He always loves to interact with students,” Leistensnider said. “One thing I’ve always seen is people posting pictures of President Trible, whether it’s from a freshman year dessert reception where all the freshmen go over to his house … or a holiday celebration. He’s very involved with the student body, which I feel like can’t be said for a lot of universities.”

As Trible looks forward, his plans include, of course, raising funds for “qualitative” growth, he said. The university’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign is underway, and its no. 1 priority is money for need-based and merit scholarships.

Developing a multi-billion-dollar endowment will put the 56-year-old university in the ranks of great universities, Trible said. It can also help raise faculty size to the 300-person goal, while expanding undergraduate research, foreign study and public service.

The future does not, Trible hopes, include a growth in student population. That 5,000-person target, plus goals of academic excellence, will remain the same to continue the work that started 20 years ago. When he looks ahead, Trible won’t say if or when he plans on retiring, only that his “hope is to stay around for awhile.”

“I really have no regrets. I’ve loved every minute of being here,” Trible said. “I look forward to every day. I have the best job in the world. … This is the moment this school’s being shaped and defined for the ages. The school that people come to 100 years from now will be the school that we get to build in this moment. And that’s incredibly empowering.”

Information from the Daily Press archives was used in this report. Hammond can be reached by phone at 757-247-4951.

Trible’s 20 years

CNU has transformed since Trible became president in 1996. A look at the numbers:

Paul Trible’s salary

1996: $150,000

2016: $844,220

Total enrollment (fall head count)

1996: 4,565

2016: 5,172

Freshman enrollment

1996: 543

2016: 1,224

Graduation rate (Starting with the freshman class over a six-year period)

1996: 35%

2016: 70%

Average SAT score

1996: 960

2016: 1157

Average grade-point average

1996: 2.68

2016: 3.80

Average student age

1996: 26

2016: 20

Amount of private fundraising dollars generated

1996: $656,120

2016: $7,609,429

Number of full-time faculty

1996: 166

2016: 275

Percentage of white and black students as part of total enrollment

1996: 77% white/17% black/23.2% minority

2016: 74% white/7.9% black/20.1% minority

Percentage of students from Hampton Roads

1996: 81%

2016: 23%

Percentage of part-time students

1996: 36%

2016: 2%


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