U.Va. -Wise turns 50 this month
|The College at Wise has grown from 109 students in 1954 to nearly 1,800 this year, with about two dozen high school valedictorians in the freshman class.
By John Mongle
In 1954, the notion that three men from a small county-seat town in the remote southwestern Virginia coalfields would approach the president of the University of Virginia and request a college in their community seemed unlikely. An even more doubtful concept was that they would actually pique the imagination of the president, Colgate Darden Jr., and that Darden and the “three Wise men” — then-Wise mayor Ken Asbury, businessmen Fred Greear and William Thompson along with University
extension agent Sam Crockett — would create the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and a legacy of opportunity in the region.
“We were in the middle of a steep economic downturn at that time,” said Don Pippin, a Wise County attorney who attended the college in 1957 and now serves on U.Va.’s Board of Visitors. “When Darden was installed as president, he spoke about the University being a significant influence in all areas of the state, but not all people connected to the University held that same view.”
“The place truly was remote,” said Wise Chancellor Ernest Ern. He first visited the Virginia coalfields in the late 1950s, while doing geological work for the Army Corps of Engineers. “Virtually every road leading into this area was a two-lane road with switchbacks.”
“I always thought that President Darden felt it was unfair for there to be a vacuum [in higher education] between the Cumberland Gap and Blacksburg,” Pippin said. “I think that anyone looking back to 1954 has to realize how essentially impossible the project was at the very beginning. Only the double-barreled asset of the prestige of the University of Virginia, coupled with the dogged determination of those early citizens and staff, succeeded in getting the concept accepted around the state.”
In the 50 years since its founding, Virginia’s highways have improved, and the College at Wise has grown from 109 students to some 1,800 this year — with plans in place to reach 2,500 in the next decade. The admissions policy that was once open to all who applied has become selective, with about two dozen high school valedictorians in the current freshman class.
Many of the students “are students like I was — the first generation going to college,” said Don Green, a 1961 graduate, president of the Wise Foundation and a member of the college’s Board of Visitors. “My father was a coal miner. He and my mom only went through seventh grade.”
In the early days of the college, educating first-generation college students often meant finding money for them to continue to enroll. Chancellor Emeritus Joe Smiddy, a long-time teacher and administrator, turned to local business people to find tuition support.
“Smiddy is the public face of higher education in Southwest Virginia,” Pippin said. “He is our renaissance man. Mr. Jefferson would have loved him.”
Funding financial aid for students of the college is still a concern.
“The intent, the desire and the commitment are all here,” Ern said. “But we are learning that the state is less and less able to provide what various institutions may require in order to fulfill the community’s needs. This leads into affiliations with industry, fundraising and philanthropy.”
“Money should not be a determining factor [to] whether a student gets a college degree,” said Green, who estimates that 80 percent of the Wise students qualify for financial aid.
“I want us to see that every deserving student has an opportunity for higher education,” Pippin said. “My hope is that someday every application to the College at Wise will be need-blind.”
To achieve that goal, a new fund drive that will focus on financial aid is set to begin.
Achieving the goals for the college’s next 50 years will require the combined dedication of the coalfield community in Wise and U.Va. in Charlottesville, as it did in the past.
“There never, never has been a stronger relationship between the University and Wise,” Ern said. “The Board of Visitors has knowledge,
appreciation and understanding of what this place is all about.”
He credits that relationship to Pippin and Bill Crutchfield, a Charlottesville member of the board who expanded his electronics business to Wise County several years ago. The chancellor also sees a strong and forceful ally in University President John T. Casteen III.
Locally, there is broad-based support as well. Green said his uncle, Dickenson County resident Carter Lambert, bequeathed the school $750,000 when he died: “He had only a third-grade education, but he realized the good he could do by leaving that money for scholarships.”
“In terms of a singular mission, especially in the early years of the school — the first 25 to 30 years — we educated an awful lot of young people who were from this area and who wouldn’t have gone to school otherwise,” said Jim Knight, Wise vice chancellor for development and college relations. “I’ve never been in a place where the sense of
mission was any stronger than it is here.”
Knight, who served as chancellor of the college from 1988 to 1992, said it was the sense of that mission that attracted him back to Wise in 2003, after heading the development office for the University Health System for 10 years.
“If you think about the ways in which this institution has been able to transform the region, I think that it gives you a sense of that mission,” he said.
A crucial part of the Wise success is what Knight calls the “intellectual floor” provided by the University. The college has benefited from the association with Charlottesville through the visiting fellows program, the expertise of the University in academic and administrative matters and the University’s prestige.
The 1999 name change from Clinch Valley College to the University of Virginia’s College at Wise is one of the most visible expressions of the solid relationship that exists between the two institutions.
“It is striking to my wife and to me how important to this region that relationship is,” Ern said. “Obviously we knew it, but the depth of that
relationship and the feeling related to that relationship are just overwhelming.”
Drawing on the strength of that association, college leaders hope to help shape the future of the region.
“With the success of the first 50 years, everybody realizes how plausible” our aspirations are, said Simeon E. “Sim” Ewing, vice chancellor for government relations. “Being an educational institution, we have to be an institution that provides for change in the region to help it diversify and [develop economically]. We must continue to reinvent and improve ourselves and continue to raise the bar.”