Leadership and Learning: A New Era at ODU

by Leona Baker

Less than a year into his presidency at the region’s largest public university, Brian Hemphill weighs in on challenges and opportunities in 2022 and beyond

Old Dominion University engineering professor Orlando Ayala was practically giddy with excitement as he showed off the bells and whistles—make that 3-D printers, welding, electrical, woodworking, biomedical and other equipment—in the university’s recently opened ODU Engineering Makerspace and Invention Center. But it’s not fancy new equipment that makes this space hum with energy, Ayala noted. It’s the students who run it.

And those students—along with professors like Ayala—are back on the Norfolk campus at last as the university, like many institutions of higher learning around the region and the country, has returned to on-campus learning and a full slate of in-person activities, hands-on learning and, yes, even real live commencement ceremonies.

Old Dominion University president Brian Hemphill in his office in Koch Hall (photo courtesy of Will Hawkins)

The sound of an active campus should be music to the ears of ODU’s new president Brian Hemphill, who has just concluded his first academic year at the helm and has touted a student-centered approach among his guiding principles for the university. “Students will be at the heart of every single decision we make every day,” he told members of “Monarch Nation” on a seven-city tour to engage supporters and alumni shortly after he took office in the summer of 2021, according to the university’s Monarch Magazine.

Hemphill replaced ODU’s longest serving president, John Broderick (2008-2021), and makes history as the university’s first Black president. Having previously served as the president of Radford University, Hemphill arrives at ODU at a critical time for colleges in general, which face an array of challenges including shifting public perception about the value of a college education relative to its ever-rising cost and looming demographic realities like the so-called “enrollment cliff,” predicted to occur in the next several years due to a drop in the number of high school seniors nationally.

Yet, there has been plenty of positive news coming from the region’s largest public university, with a current reported enrollment of approximately 24,000 including 19,000 undergraduate students. The university’s robust existing online programs gave it an overall tactical advantage during the pandemic. In addition to the official opening of the 7,000 square foot makerspace, the university also unveiled a $75.6 million state-of-the-art chemistry building in 2021, which houses the new Michael and Kimthanh Lê Planetarium.

The university’s Brooks Crossing Innovation Lab in Newport News opened in 2019 and expands it community presence by focusing on workforce development and STEM education outreach in collaboration with the city and others. And the Remote Experience for Young Engineers and Scientists, or REYES program, launched during the pandemic to offer virtual STEM-H education to students around the globe.

ODU recently earned the coveted Research 1 Classification from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, placing it among preeminent research institutions in the United States. In August 2021, the university announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding for the establishment of a school of public health in partnership with Norfolk State University and Eastern Virginia Medical School. And, of course, the news that ODU had accepted an invitation to join the Sun Belt athletic conference has been met with excitement from local sports fans tempered by some lingering legal questions surrounding its exit from Conference USA, which have since been resolved.

CoVa BIZ recently connected with President Hemphill for some reflections on his vision for the university, the challenges and opportunities afforded by its integral role in our business and broader community in Coastal Virginia. His responses are included here.

CoVa BIZ: What drew you to Old Dominion University and what are you most energized about in your role as the university’s ninth president? 

Brian Hemphill: I was drawn to ODU due to the profile of our students and the diversity of our campus. When I looked at the institution, it was exciting to me both personally and professionally. I was ready to tell the ODU story and grow awareness both nationally and internationally. From my perspective, ODU has amazing components from online to research to corporate partnerships. All are strong, but all can grow. I wanted to be part of that growth and the future.

ODU has a great history of serving a population that speaks to me as a first-generation college student, as well as the level of diversity. ODU was truly on the cusp of taking the next step as a research university, which occurred this past December when we obtained the prestigious R1 status from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education due to the outstanding work of our dedicated researchers, faulty, staff and students. I am truly honored to serve this great institution and those who make it so very special!


What do you view as the critical challenges faced by ODU as an institution in the next five years—including in key areas such as enrollment and fundraising? 

With the reality of the enrollment cliff and the global health pandemic, our society has changed so much. It is changing right before our eyes. Higher education is entering uncharted territory to say the least, but I am confident in Monarch Nation and our ability to rise to this occasion.

Currently, ODU is navigating a year-long strategic planning process in which we are examining the challenges and opportunities facing our campus, our community and our Commonwealth. As part of that process, we have a Challenges and Opportunities Subcommittee that is solely focused on this task. I look forward to receiving their report and sharing it with those engaged in this important process. I know that it will inform and strengthen the outcomes and plans for the future!


How has the pandemic left its mark on colleges, and students and what positives do you see resulting from these experiences? 

The COVID-19 global health pandemic has truly changed our society, and higher education is no different. Institutions all across our nation and the world shifted from online instruction to a completely virtual environment in a very condensed time frame. In responding to the pandemic and remaining committed to serving our students, higher education proved that we can be nimble when necessary. Moving forward, we have to harness that level of flexibility and service to ensure that we are meeting the needs of the students of both today and tomorrow.


What role can or should ODU play in the region’s economic recovery? 

As one of the region’s leading economic drivers, ODU can and will play a pivotal role in our region and its future. I would like to specifically highlight the role and importance of maritime here in Hampton Roads. During an event last fall, I was pleased to announce the establishment of the ODU Maritime Initiative to advance our institution as a globally recognized university for maritime opportunities. This initiative will both coordinate and grow the university’s maritime-related degree and certificate programs, talent development, entrepreneurship, research and innovation.

To chart a clear course for this important work, we have developed a series of pathways, including: a national hub for autonomous systems; a maritime small business innovation collaborative; a Department of Defense center of excellence for naval sustainment and mission engineering; and a sustainable home and brand for maritime innovation in Hampton Roads. At ODU, we truly believe that maritime will be a driver for our region and has the ability to really change the trajectory of our economy.


In what sectors of the job market do you see increasing demand and how can ODU help meet that demand? 

At ODU, we are focused on growing opportunities and future possibilities around several clusters, such as data sciences, healthcare and maritime. We believe that, due to our regional needs and local economic activity, there is much growth opportunity in these areas. We will continue to engage in many areas, but these will emerge as areas of focus in the months and years to come.


College campuses are becoming more diverse in a variety of ways, including at ODU. Where is there room for improvement in terms of expanding access and affordability for more students to attend and graduate?  

ODU has a history of being both accessible and affordable. At the same time, we have established a foundation and reputation for quality. We are fully focused on meeting students where they are and providing customized experiences. And, we do so in an inclusive and supportive environment. That is a true mark of the Monarch legacy!


What responsibility do colleges and universities have in addressing the student debt burden in this country?  

We are at a critical crossroad in public higher education as some individuals are questioning if we are becoming a private privilege rather than a public good. Public higher education was once primarily funded by federal and state government through taxpayer support. Today, a majority of funding for public higher education is provided by students and their families.

Nationally, when there is a lack of available funding, higher education is one of the first areas reviewed for reductions. Why? Because we have the ability to offset budget reductions by increasing tuition and fees. In reality, our ability to make up for reduced federal and state funding is impacting our mission and those we serve, specifically students. By charging more, we end up serving less. The rising costs have led to student loan debt surpassing credit card debt. The statistics are alarming. We must do more to protect and promote the accessibility and affordability of higher education for all!


We’re in a time in which educational institutions are under scrutiny for the ways in which they approach certain topics such as race and social justice in the classroom. In your view, how can colleges and universities help students become informed, engaged citizens in this environment?  

In leading an institution that prides itself on providing an inclusive and supportive environment, this is a topic in which I am very passionate. For me, the need is so very clear. Our students need us. Our nation needs us. And, the world needs us. At ODU, it is our goal for every graduate to leave our campus ready to fulfill their role as a member of our active, engaged and informed citizenry.

As a college campus, we must have the wisdom to promote the free and open discussion that is the cornerstone of a university experience. We must embrace this opportunity and responsibility. We must fill the void in our society each and every day. We must foster an environment in which we see the unseen and where we speak the unspoken!


How can ODU best balance its commitment to student success with its aspirations as a research institution and its broader role in the community? 

Our core mission is to provide a world-class education in an inclusive and supportive environment. That is our purpose and our promise to past, current and future generations of Monarch students. We will never lose sight of our important role to engage students and assist them in reaching their personal and professional goals. We are and will continue to be a student-centered research institution!


What long-term aspirational goals do you have for ODU and its place in the region and the world?   

At ODU, we have a common goal and a shared vision. Together, we will be a forward-focused public research university that is both innovative and entrepreneurial as we propel Old Dominion University to national and international prominence!


Getting to Know President Hemphill

Last book read: Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College

Favorite spot on ODU’s campus: Kaufman Mall

Favorite food in the dining hall: Chick-fil-A Cobb Salad

Favorite ODU tradition: Ice Cream and Cake

Best comment to hear from an ODU graduate? “ODU changed my life!”



As Old Dominion University welcomes its ninth president, Christopher Newport University and Hampton University prepare for the retirement of long-serving presidents, each with transformative legacies.


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