Image: Michael Benabib, Saint Augustine’s University
The new president’s Jeep Cherokee, with its out-of-state tags, wasn’t in its usual campus parking spot.
It took Kengie Bass several days to notice. At first, the dean of the general college at Saint Augustine’s University wondered if the president was out of town, raising money. Maybe he was working from home. On a nice day, Bass speculated that he had started walking to work.
The new president was Irving Pressley McPhail, and he had big plans for the private, historically black university in Raleigh, N.C. But when a meeting about the university’s strategic plan was postponed, Bass started to wonder. After a dip in the state’s Covid-19 cases, the trajectory of the virus had begun to rise anew. Had the president been infected?
One evening in October, Bass lay in bed, scrolling through emails on his phone. One had come in just before 10 p.m.
“Dr. Irving Pressley McPhail is recovering from Covid-19,” the email read. “He is receiving expert care and treatment at a local hospital.”
Bass turned to his wife. “He really has it.”
No leader arrives with guarantees. But tapping McPhail as the new president of Saint Augustine’s, effective July 15, was an exciting step. His long administrative career intersected constantly with issues of racial equity and student success, and the university had ambitious goals for retention and graduation rates. Enrollment had fluctuated around 1,000 students for several years, and many were the first in their families to go to college, administrators told The Chronicle.
The university’s previous president retired in 2019 after resolving a two-year probation from the university’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which cited financial instability as a major problem. By early 2020, the campus had increased enrollment, but it was on its second interim president.
The board wanted to appoint a seasoned leader who could raise money and enhance programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, said James Perry, the board’s chairman, a retired Florida Supreme Court justice, and an alumnus
Campus leaders met McPhail virtually. Perry was impressed by the candidate’s résumé. He had led Lemoyne-Owen College, the Community College of Baltimore County, and St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley.
“He was the complete package. He was our dream president,” Perry said. But the chairman also wondered why McPhail would want to come to Saint Augustine’s in this moment. McPhail was in his 70s, decades into his career, and the pandemic was throwing all of higher education into disarray.
He wanted to give back, McPhail told the board. McPhail grew up in Harlem, and while he attended a specialized public high school, he saw less fortunate students fall through the cracks. Perry left the interview with the impression that McPhail wanted to benefit similarly situated students. In five years, the board chair thought, Saint Augustine’s would be on its way.
McPhail told his wife, Christine McPhail, that Saint Augustine’s was a place where he could make a difference. In a week, he said, he would know everyone at the small campus. Its location in the Research Triangle of North Carolina could enable partnerships with other campuses. Her husband had an innate ability to organize and plan, she said, and he would train those talents on the university.
“It just seemed like it was all coming together,” Christine McPhail said. He wasn’t approaching this job to prove something — “This one is for them,” he would say. “This one is for the next generation.”
Galvanized by George Floyd’s killing in police custody, that next generation was turning to protest, just as McPhail had as a college student.
For 36 hours in 1969, McPhail and other members of the Afro-American Society participated in an armed occupation of Cornell University’s student union that brought a reckoning of students’ demands.
It was prompted by a campus atmosphere that, McPhail would later say, was “hostile to our cultural needs.” Society members felt that student-conduct hearings were stacked against Black students, and that administrators were slow-walking the creation of a Black-studies department. And then, one April morning on the front steps of housing for Black women, someone lighted ablaze a wooden cross. And so the students filed into the student union over parents’ weekend.
McPhail would devote much of his career to pursuing equity in education for Black students far beyond Cornell.
“For the Black freshman class of 1966, race became the major organizing principle of our lives,” McPhail would later say in a speech at the Cornell Club of Maryland. “Our learning began to take on meaning relative to Black experience, self-education began largely through reading African and African American history and culture and sharing the results of our enlightenment, and knowledge began to take on goal-directed meaning.”
McPhail’s father and mother, an upholsterer and a homemaker, taught him “never to take on something I think I can’t accomplish,” he told The Baltimore Sun in the 1990s. At one institution, he published unflattering data about student outcomes in an effort to spur positive change. As president and chief executive of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, he sought to diversify the field through distributing scholarship dollars and investing in pre-college education.
After years at the association, he and his wife worked as higher-education consultants. Early in the pandemic, he and a former coworker at the engineering association, Aileen Walter, emailed articles on colleges and Covid-19 back and forth, commenting on the challenges that higher-education leaders faced.
Soon he decided to come off the sidelines, to lead a college himself in a moment of crisis for American higher education. There were students’ lives to change in a campus environment that brought a small, familial culture.
“You,” he told the Class of 2024 early in his term, “are today’s Talented Tenth.”
Reopening this fall posed existential questions for campuses from coast to coast — including the fundamental question of whether to bring students back. Private universities like Saint Augustine’s knew their revenues were largely dependent on students’ decisions to enroll or live on campus.
There were other factors to consider. Perry, the board chair, maintained that Saint Augustine’s students would be safer on campus than off. At home, they might live in multi-generation homes or not have enough food. And if they stopped progressing toward their degrees, their shot at a college diploma might vanish, he said. For some students, this could be their only chance.
But responding to Covid-19 had strained even well-resourced institutions, including the nearby North Carolina State University, which moved all courses online after two weeks. That campus’s shutdown unnerved Bass, the dean. Finalizing the details of reopening Saint Augustine’s had felt like playing whack-a-mole.
Like other colleges nationwide, the university proposed far-reaching regulations on student life — on outside visitors, laundry-room occupancy, stairway traffic. The campus pledged to send each student nine masks, and over the first two weeks, dining halls would offer only carry-out meals.
Saint Augustine’s did not mandate testing, Bass said, but it set up a testing site at a campus athletic complex. The university does not have a public-facing dashboard of Covid-19 cases, but a university spokeswoman said on Monday that six students and four staff members had confirmed cases.
The tight community, administrators said, was helpful in encouraging adherence to public-safety protocols. McPhail told The News & Observer that he drove around the campus after work every day. If students were not wearing masks he would open the car window and remind them to put one on.
The president was present constantly in those early days. Frequently, he recommended articles for Bass to read. At the end of a virtual faculty retreat, McPhail spoke, referring to specific presentations and ideas. It was clear he had sat in on every session, the dean said. One day, McPhail hosted an ice-cream social for honors students in his back yard. Toward the end of the event, Bass said, McPhail joined students in dancing the Electric Slide.
The presidency wasn’t all faculty meetings and ice-cream socials. Early in the semester, McPhail and Perry, the board chair, traveled to Atlanta to respond to a complaint from the accreditor. The agency gave the university a warning on September 9, citing questions of governance and board management that, HBCU Digest reported, had unfolded before McPhail’s arrival. The new president got context on the situation and heard directly from the accreditors, Perry said.
Christine McPhail, herself a former college president, saw her husband advocating for strong Covid-19 protocols as he began at the university. McPhail was serious about staying safe, she said — he often wore two masks and kept hand sanitizer in the car.
“We are both students, very much students, of what’s going on in America,” she said. “We are not paranoid, but we are not fools either.”
The campus needed to walk the line between the community-centered environment and the social-distancing procedures. Maria Lumpkin, who had served as interim president, became McPhail’s chief of staff and vice president.
She remembered the many questions that preoccupied the leadership team: “Are all the protocols in place? Do we need to revisit anything else? Have we considered this? Do we have the resources to do this? Are resources more important than lives? Or meeting our enrollment goals, more important than lives? If we have to pivot to a different scenario, how will that impact the university? How will that impact students that need to be here?”
On September 14, McPhail learned that someone he had been in contact with had tested positive for Covid-19, Lumpkin and Perry said. After he got the news, Lumpkin said, McPhail left campus to be tested.
She notified her colleagues that they could have been exposed. But she had worked closest with McPhail. Lumpkin and McPhail began every morning talking through his schedule. They took some meals together.
After McPhail tested positive, Lumpkin, who declined to share her test results, had to quarantine. At first, both worked remotely. He spoke at convocation virtually.
Lumpkin said McPhail contracted the disease from someone unconnected to the campus. It’s hard to be 100 percent sure, Christine McPhail said — who can be? — though she expressed support for the university’s stance that he did not contract Covid-19 on campus. “I don’t see any evidence of any clusters or anything like that at the university.”
One evening in late September, Lumpkin got a call from the campus public-safety department. There was an ambulance at the president’s house, just down the street from her own.
The work of the fall semester continued despite the president’s absence. Lumpkin assumed the role of acting president. Without permission from McPhail or his wife, Lumpkin said, Saint Augustine’s didn’t say publicly that McPhail had contracted Covid-19. Rumors and speculation on campus filled the gap of information.
Perry, the board chair, said Christine McPhail gave him regular reports that were candid and at times hopeful. The president’s health wavered. There would be good days, but then McPhail needed oxygen and ultimately had to be put on a ventilator, Perry said. On October 12, the university emailed the campus, announcing that McPhail was in the hospital, recovering.
Bass wondered what the email meant. “Recovering” could indicate the president might rebound quickly. But it could also point to something else. It could mean that McPhail wasn’t doing well at all.
Lumpkin was in her kitchen at home when she got the call three days later. McPhail had died. She immediately looked through her back window, her eyes toward the president’s house down the street. She wanted to go over, or call, but she stopped herself. It isn’t the right time.
Later that day she sat with a senior leader in her dimly lighted living room. On the table between them was a history of the university and the book Across That Bridge, by John Lewis, the late congressman.
Lumpkin shook her head in disbelief. In the coming days there would be memorials to plan, and the business of the university would roll on — the admissions recruiting materials to post, the virtual homecoming logistics to execute, the goals to realize. But first there was this night, this moment.
They called cabinet members to break the news. Their colleagues were silent. And then they prayed.
That evening — three days after announcing McPhail’s diagnosis — the university sent another campuswide email. The new president had died after three months at Saint Augustine’s.
Christine McPhail prays that scientists will find a way to turn around the pandemic. She rejects President Trump’s position that contracting Covid-19 isn’t a big deal. “He does not know what he is talking about,” she said. But she doesn’t want the public to feel sorry for her husband, or for her. “He was doing what God brought him here to do. He had a purpose.”
The next morning she got a text, urging her to look outside. There she saw a display that she says she will never forget.
Gathered outside in the rain were staff, faculty, and students — his kids, she has since thought — walking toward their home with red and white roses. They waved at her as she stood, masked, inside the screen door. And then, one after another, they lay the flowers on the short brick wall near her hedges.
Correction (Oct. 27, 2020, 6:49 p.m.): A photograph identified as Irving Pressley McPhail was incorrect. The article has been updated to remove the image. The Chronicle regrets the error.