Dr. Michelle R. Howard-Vital, 65, the former president of Cheyney University, where she lived and worked for seven years, died Tuesday, Aug. 21, of cancer at Duke Regional Hospital near her home in Durham, N.C.
Dr. Howard-Vital served for more than 30 years as a leader of universities in Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
She started at age 22 as an English instructor at the College Without Walls at Central YMCA Community College in Chicago. She loved teaching. "I cannot believe they are paying me so much – $10,000 – to have so much fun," she told her family.
From 2007 to 2014, Dr. Howard-Vital was president of Cheyney, the oldest historically black college in the country. It's known for giving inner-city students a chance to attend college. More than half its students are Philadelphians.
Under Dr. Howard-Vital's tenure, Cheyney opened its first residence hall in three decades and refurbished Humphreys Hall, the oldest building on campus, for use as a dormitory. She oversaw completion of a $22 million science center and planetarium.
Dr. Howard-Vital actively promoted Cheyney's brand on social media. She tweeted and developed a monthly digital newsletter and a presence on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. She posted on her President's Blog from April 2008 until May 2014.
In addition, she hosted public forums with speakers such as poet Maya Angelou, movie director Spike Lee, college professor Cornel West, novelist Alice Walker, and political activist and author Angela Davis.
"These speakers were brought to the campus to engage the students and community in academic dialogue," her family said.
But Dr. Howard-Vital faced some rough going when she took over in July 2007. Like many historically black colleges and universities, Cheyney had struggled for years with low enrollment and financial deficits. When she started there, the deficit was between $4 million and $6 million, Robert W. Bogle, head of the school's council of trustees, told the Inquirer, and by September 2013, it had risen to $14 million.
The school, which is state-supported, struggled to get its share of a diminishing pool of public money. Less than a year into her presidency, she faced allegations of mismanaging finances, and the support-staff union called for her ouster at a rally.
Asked whether he thought Dr. Howard-Vital was responsible for the growth in the deficit, Bogle said: "Some of it, yes. Some of it, no."
Geri R. Vital, her husband, said that what others saw as fiscal mismanagement was poor bookkeeping. "Poor records were kept, and it was difficult to charge the students appropriately for what they owed," he said. "Because of that, the budget suffered. These issues were set in motion long before she got there, and the people who recruited her did not tell her about them."
He also said his wife ran into trouble with a union after she insisted that the rank and file put in a full day's work. Its members had fallen into the habit of working short days, he said.
After speaking with university officials, Dr. Howard-Vital decided to retire in July 2014. "Biblical scholars say the number 7 in the Bible signifies completion," she said as the retirement was announced. "My last day will come on my seventh anniversary. Cheyney University has been a challenging and rewarding experience that I will cherish. I leave knowing that I've accomplished much to benefit the university."
She moved to North Carolina to pursue personal projects but wasn't idle long. In 2016, she became provost at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens. A year later, she was appointed interim president. She held the post until health problems forced her to step down late last year.
Born in Chicago to Dolores Elizabeth and Robert Howard, Dr. Howard-Vital graduated from Cathedral High School. She earned a bachelor's degree in English literature and a master's degree in English teaching from the University of Chicago. She earned a doctorate in public policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Dr. Howard-Vital served as interim chancellor at Winston-Salem State University and associate vice president for academic affairs at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She held top posts at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Edinboro University in Edinboro, Pa., Chicago State University, and Harold Washington College in Chicago.
She received numerous awards, including the 2012 Women of Distinction Award given by the Philadelphia Business Journal.
Dr. Howard-Vital authored many professional papers. Her last writing was done with her daughter, Madelyn G. Vital, for an anthology, Michelle Obama's Impact on African American Women and Girls, published earlier this year by Palgrave Macmillan.
She was a member of the American Council on Education, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and The Links Inc., a volunteer service organization for women of color.
Dr. Howard-Vital enjoyed reading, blogging, traveling, interior design, and mentoring younger leaders.
Besides her husband and daughter, she is survived by a stepson, Gabriel M. Priester; a brother; and a sister.
Plans for memorial services are pending.