Education has been absolutely transformational for me.
I was born and raised in Southeast Washington in a single-parent household, living in government housing projects at one point. Ironically, my junior high school had a new guidance counselor who knew about New England preparatory schools.
A teacher urged a few of us students to apply to Phillips Exeter Academy. I had no idea what she was talking about. But I applied and was accepted to attend on scholarship.
It was certainly a major change in my life and gave me ways of looking at life that I had not been exposed to.
From that point, I wasn’t afraid to get into debates about issues, and I saw that the world wasn’t the way it looked at first blush. It was far deeper and richer. If you asked the questions, you could get to that deeper part of the world. But you had to ask the questions.
After studying economics at Harvard, I took a year off and went to Wharton School of Business, because I knew I wanted to be in the business world.
I did a lot of small-business consulting and was exposed to not only large Fortune 500 companies but also small businesses.
I also did strategic planning for about four years at Standard Oil of Ohio, now called BP.
I realized I could do that well but I yearned for more robust intellectual discussion, so I decided to get my doctorate in American Studies at William and Mary.
I then became a typical Strayer student. I worked full time. I went to school full time. I had both of my kids while in my doctoral program. It was trying to balance work, school and home life.
After I graduated, I taught at the University of Florida’s business school. I volunteered to teach a class of 1,500 students, which also aired on cable television.
My teaching style was to engage the class with a series of questions to get people to participate on both sides of the issue.
I found the perfect teaching moments to be when the kids were still talking and debating as they walked out the door at the end of class.
When I was dean of the college of arts and sciences at North Carolina A&T, I oversaw 13 departments. It was a great training ground for managing my own college.
At Strayer, I found a place where I could put my MBA and liberal arts doctorate together. Because it is an investor-funded organization, it’s also important that I understand the business side to see how all the pieces come together
In any given community, only 20 to 40 percent of that community is going to have a college degree or higher. But the economy is based on people having post-secondary degree skills. We need to move this adult population in a college environment to take advantage of this knowledge-based economy.
This is a perfect job for me professionally, but personally we’re really addressing these fundamental questions in my mind that we have to get right if we as a country are going to succeed.
— Interview with Vanessa Small
Position: President of Strayer University, a for-profit higher education institution.
Career highlights: Provost and chief academic officer, Strayer University; dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, North Carolina A&T State University; associate dean, Brown University’s Graduate School.
Education: BA, economics, Harvard University; MBA, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania; Ph.D., American studies, College of William and Mary.
Personal: Lives in Hamilton, Va., with his wife, Cassandra. They have two children, Pilar and Michael II.