Saint Augustine’s University president dies months after becoming HBCU’s 12th leader

The president of Saint Augustine’s University, who just became the historically Black college’s leader this summer, has died, the university said Thursday night “with great sadness.”


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Irving Pressley McPhail was named the university’s 12th leader after a national search, with officials highlighting his experience in higher education, urban public school administration and work in the non-profit sector. He also was known for his efforts highlighting contributions made by minorities in the STEM field.

He joined the school July 15. A cause of death was not released.

“In the short time he was the university’s chief executive officer, he made a memorable and positive impact in moving the University in the direction of being a ‘Learning Centered’ campus,” the statement said.

In August, McPhail told The News & Observer that the coronavirus pandemic is showing that HBCUs are more important than ever. He spoke with The N&O as students were returning to school.

“Our campus represents for many of our students a safe haven,” McPhail said.

While wealthier students at other universities may be able to afford to take a year off, he said, “My kids want to come back to school.”

He had big goals as the new president. He said he hoped St. Aug’s would hit a milestone enrollment of 1,000 students. He had hopes of launching an institute on the study of racial disparities to be based at the university, which was founded in 1867 and later launched North Carolina’s first nursing school for African American students.

And he said the pandemic and the recent emphasis on racial and social justice issues in America would be incorporated into coursework.

At the end of each workday, McPhail told The N&O, he drove around campus to see whether students were wearing masks and keeping a safe distance from one another. If they were not, he said, he rolled down the window of his car and gently reminded them.

McPhail said he believed science-based guidance would lead the country, and his students, out of the pandemic. But he said he hadn’t forgotten that St. Aug’s was founded by a pastor and a bishop of the Episcopal church.

“I’m happy that St. Augustine’s was founded on religious traditions and prayer,” McPhail told The N&O, “because I’m praying every day.”

Events to honor McPhail have not been announced. Dr. Maria A. Lumpkin, the school’s vice president and chief of staff, will serve as interim president, effective immediately.

A lengthy career in education

McPhail, a New York City native, also was founder and chief strategy officer at the McPhail Group LLC.

He was a professor of practice at the Dr. John E. Roueche Community College Leadership Center at Kansas State University. His work focused on connecting “practice, policy, and research in language, literacy, and culture; postsecondary student success; underrepresented minorities in STEM education and careers; and community college leadership,” according to SAU.

Before coming to SAU, McPhail was the sixth president and CEO at the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Inc., which was awarded the 2012 Claire Felbinger Award for Diversity from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology under his leadership.

McPhail also served as founding chancellor at the Community College of Baltimore County, president at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley and president at Lemoyne-Owen College. He also previously served as provost at Pace University, vice president and dean of academic affairs at Delaware State University and chief operating officer at the Baltimore City Public Schools.

In addition to administrative roles, McPhail was a tenured professor at Delaware State University, Lemoyne-Owen College and Pace University.

McPhail earned a bachelor’s degree at Cornell University, a master’s degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a doctorate in reading/language arts at the University of Pennsylvania as a National Fellowships Fund Fellow. He was also awarded two honorary doctoral degrees from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the Polytechnic Institute of New York University.

He was married to Dr. Christine Johnson McPhail and had two children and several grandchildren.

He replaced Everett Ward, who retired in March 2019. Two interim presidents filled the position until McPhail was hired.

The school was founded in 1867 by the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.


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