The ‘visionary’ leader changed the trajectory of Christopher Newport University
Paul Trible – visionary, great showman, eternal optimist – is retiring from the academic institution he has run for a quarter of a century. His distinctive imprint will remain for decades at Christopher Newport University, the site of the peninsula he transformed so dramatically that it bears little resemblance to where he became president in 1996.
I generally hesitate to use such superlatives and descriptions in my columns. Not today.
Tribal, a former Republican U.S. Senator and Congressman of the Republic, announced last week in a video message he will retire at the end of the 2021-22 school year. He had taken a sabbatical earlier this year to care for his wife, Rosemary, who is battling an autoimmune disease. Trible will be 75 in December, and he has explained that he wants to spend more time with his family, including his children and grandchildren.
It has become synonymous with CNU, just like President William Harvey near Hampton University. (Harvey also plans to retire in 2022 after 44 years at the helm.)
“Thank you for embracing the dream that by working together we could create another great university for America,” Trible noted in the video. “Together, we made this bold dream come true. “
I’ve heard such shameless confidence – detractors would say unnecessary hyperbole – from Trible since the late 1990s. That’s when I was on the editorial board of (Newport News) Daily Press, and the former lawmaker invited our members to the campus to hear, in detail, his plans to build a “breathtaking” artistic building at the CNU.
If memes had been a thing back then, one would have been released quickly. A coworker and I repeated the slogan frequently, laughing as we mimicked Trible, the consummate salesman.
It’s not bragging, though, if you can back it up. Even more impressive are Trible’s exploits as he had no college education before being appointed president. It is a rarity.
The appearance of the campus, the stature of the institution, and the ranking of incoming students are radically different from when Trible took over as president from his predecessor, Anthony Santoro. Trible deserves its accessories, even with its must-have quotes.
Through a spokesperson for the university, he declined my interview request. This is surprising, for he was more than eager to listen two decades ago about anything CNU related.
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.
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 suburban school, with very little on-campus housing.
The public university also didn’t 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”. Kidd, now dean of the College of Social Sciences, thought he could spend just a few years there before moving on, possibly to a larger university.
Things, however, were about to change drastically – and for the better – at the Newport News institution.
Shortly after Trible took the reins, the former US senator convinced lawmakers in Richmond that the CNU deserved better funding. His experience at the United States Capitol provided instant credibility to the State Capitol. He got a 21% increase in the university budget, compared to the 4 percent increase expected under its predecessor.
Trible started recruiting harshly in Northern Virginia, a place CNU had not sought before. The effort, Kidd told me, ultimately produced thousands of additional claims from that part of the state. “So you could get more selective,” Kidd added.
Then there was the massive effort to raze, build and revamp the look and feel of the campus. Since Trible joined the university, she has completed over $ 1 billion in capital construction, including over 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 striking, according to the university: the number of full-time students has increased from 2,920 to 4,739. The number of students in residence has increased tenfold, from 381 to 3 810. The GPA entering the first year fell from 2.8 to 3.8.
The six-year graduation rate was an average of 35 percent in 1996. Last year it was 80 percent. It’s below the mark at the University of Virginia, but certainly in the stadium.
A quarter of a century ago, the endowment was still in six figures. It is now $ 54 million.
Nor did the president just neglect sport. He oversaw, for example, the creation of a football program and the construction of a football stadium for the team. The Division III competitor started playing in 2001.
The push for college football was more than just athletics, John R. Lawson II, executive chairman of construction company WM Jordan and neighbor to Trible, told me. The company has constructed more than 20 buildings on campus.
Saturday’s home games bring alumni back to campus, boost morale and giving, and involve alumni more in school activities, Lawson said. “If you want to make transformational change from a university,” he added, “you have to do a lot of things simultaneously. ”
Controversies have also arisen over the years. It’s almost impossible to avoid over a mandate as long as Trible’s.
The university’s expansion caused friction when it took over properties in older, established communities. Changes to the roads in or near the university have caused complaints.
The president also drew criticism in 2020 during the racial calculation over the death of George Floyd. Trible wrote a letter denouncing the destruction of property during the protests, without fully acknowledging the institutional racism that sparked the protests in the first place. Critics have called him deaf; Trible later apologized.
The people I interviewed, however, emphasized the positive. “Paul is a visionary,” said longtime Newport News mayor McKinley Price. “It will paint a picture of what could be. And then shows you what needs to be done to make it happen.
The university is an extension of Trible. He created a legacy that far surpassed his record in Washington – and he accomplished it directly in Newport News.