Even before Aminta H. Breaux arrived at Bowie State University, she started to get messages. Emails hit her in-box after the announcement that she would be the school’s next president. Her phone rang, too.
“I had a prospective student’s mother call me at my former institution while I was still there to tell me how excited she was that I was going to be the next president, and I was the first female president and that made her so — she felt so proud,” Breaux said. “And she was looking forward to seeing me. So, I look forward to seeing her in the fall.”
This month, Breaux took office as Bowie State’s 10th president — and, yes, the first woman to hold the position. She comes to the school in Prince George’s County not only with an outsider’s perspective, but also with a desire to forge deeper partnerships within the community and create a better student experience.
“She brings a tremendous amount of energy, and I think that’s incredibly important in a leader,” said Jim Brady, chair of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents. “I think she has an ability to describe her vision for Bowie in ways that are very impressive.”
Bowie State, founded in 1865, is the oldest historically black university in Maryland. It predates Coppin State and Morgan State universities, both in Baltimore, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
The school draws heavily from its surrounding region, and the vast majority of its students come from Maryland. Of about 5,660 students as of last fall, more than half came from Prince George’s and more than 87 percent from within the state. More than 80 percent of its enrollment is African American.
It serves a large number of economically disadvantaged students. More than half of its undergraduates have enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell grants.
Like many regional public universities across the country, Bowie State also faces the perennial challenge of ensuring that students complete their work and earn a degree. The most recent federal data show that 37 percent of first-time, full-time students graduate from Bowie State within six years. Other data show that a smaller, additional share transfer and get a degree elsewhere.
Breaux said Bowie State is “well-positioned to do some amazing things,” surrounded by a hub of businesses in the region and a “great, supportive community.” She wants Bowie State to capitalize on all of that.
“Our place is at the forefront of the minds of business leaders that this is the place where we have a quality educational experience that links to businesses and communities,” she said.
“And that we’re not seen as on this separate track in preparing students for a future, but we’re working in concert with other educational institutions, other business leaders.”
Breaux, 58, previously worked as vice president for advancement and vice president for student affairs at the public Millersville University in Pennsylvania. Before that, she was dean of students at the private University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.
Her background could help Breaux as she looks to upgrade the student experience at Bowie State by bolstering online offerings and improving campus housing.
“I come to the presidency with a different kind of a mind-set than your typical presidents do,” she said.
“I know firsthand that we can do so much more to bridge the classroom learning into the later hours of the day. Because when you look at the hours that students are up, through all hours of the night, many campuses are doing more in the residence halls.”
The university recently unveiled a new building focused on science at the heart of its campus.
At the end of the spring term, the school was shaken when student Richard Collins III was fatally stabbed at the University of Maryland in College Park just days before he was to graduate. The 23-year-old had recently been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
Breaux described Bowie State as a supportive and caring place. That’s something she can see as she walks around campus and notices small courtesies, like people who make sure to hold the door open. She is aware of the school’s history and legacy.
“I think, as an HBCU, we still have huge value for the African American community,” she said. “And we, I hope, will always hold on to that. At the same time . . . demographics are changing. And so we are competing with the schools [in the area]. We’re also competing with the schools that are in Pennsylvania and Delaware and across the region and across the country, in certain markets.”
Breaux succeeds Mickey Burnim, who stepped down this year after more than a decade as president.
“I think she is exactly the right person to carry on what he had done and really take it to the next level,” Brady said.
Breaux is one of a handful of new presidents at Washington-area universities. Thomas J. LeBlanc is the incoming president of George Washington University, and Sylvia M. Burwell took over this year at American University. Burwell, like Breaux at Bowie State, is the first female president of AU.
“It means quite a bit,” Breaux said. “To be the first of anything means a lot. But for this institution, for its history, since 1865, to be the first female president here is very, very special. First female African American president at Bowie State. With that comes expectations.”
Her early days at Bowie State have been “exhilarating,” said Breaux, a mother and grandmother who is originally from Philadelphia.
She toured the new science building that Burnim helped bring to campus and spoke with a professor conducting research on genetic tracking of plants. (“And they had to pull me away,” she said, “because there I was — I’m saying, ‘Well, how do you do this, and how do you do that?’ ”) She gets stopped a lot by people who welcome her.
“I want to take the time to get to know the staff, the faculty, the students — to say, ‘You know, I see you. You mean something. You’re not a number,’ ” Breaux said. “What you do makes a difference and has an impact.”