This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published. This story was co-published with VCIJ and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
More than most public colleges, Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, is the embodiment of one person’s vision.
Paul Trible was CNU’s president from 1996 to 2022, serving almost three times as long as anyone else. He remains a distinguished professor at the school and its highest-paid employee, making more than half a million dollars a year. A former congressman and U.S. senator, Trible took over a young university and transformed it from a commuter school into a residential campus. He boosted the school’s endowment from $300,000 to $64 million. Construction during his presidency included a student union, dormitories, a theater and concert hall, a baseball stadium and a chapel. The CNU library underwent major renovation and was renamed after Trible and his wife.
The longtime Republican politician also left another, less-noted legacy: a decline in the Black presence both on campus and in the adjacent neighborhood. Under his stewardship, the university pursued policies that thinned the ranks of Black students and faculty even as its continuing expansion eradicated a nearby Black community.
“For our area, a school that’s built on land that was taken from Black Americans” should be more diverse, said Audrey Perry Williams, president of the Hampton Roads chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, during a university-sponsored panel discussion on CNU’s history in November. “It’s just amazing that we’ve got all of this technology, we’ve got this outstanding institution here. And we’re not represented.”
Under Trible, CNU prioritized recruiting from affluent, largely white suburban high schools, according to current and former university officials.
In a state that is one-fifth African American and a city that is 44% Black, CNU’s Black enrollment dropped from 17% to 7% during Trible’s administration. It now stands at 8%.
The share of low-income students also decreased. The fifth most expensive of Virginia’s 15 public universities. CNU has the highest average net price — the actual cost of attending after subtracting grants and scholarships — for students from families with incomes under $30,000, according to state data.
Pell Grants, the federal financial aid program for low-income students, demonstrate the shift. From 1996, when Trible became president, to 2017, the last year for which federal data is available, the number of Pell Grant recipients at CNU dropped by 26%. Over the same period, the number of recipients nationally almost doubled. According to state data, the number of CNU students on Pell Grants declined by about one-third, from 1,003 in 1996 to 663 in 2021.
Black representation among professors is even more sparse. Out of CNU’s 286 full-time faculty in the fall of 2021, only seven, or 2.4%, were Black, the lowest percentage since at least 1993 and well below the national average of 6%, according to U.S. Department of Education data. One factor: CNU’s hiring criteria favored candidates from schools that were highly ranked by U.S. News & World Report, putting applicants from historically Black colleges and universities at a disadvantage.
Questions of racial discrimination have plagued Christopher Newport, which has 4,500 students and an annual revenue of about $180 million, since its birth as an all-white branch of the Colleges of William and Mary system in 1960. As ProPublica and Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO previously reported, the city of Newport News seized the core of a middle-class Black community by eminent domain as a site for the new college’s campus, bypassing other, less-expensive locations. Under Trible, the university completed the neighborhood’s erasure by acquiring almost all of the remaining homes.
As CNU president, Trible’s actions and comments on race-related issues sometimes stirred controversy. In 2003, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found reasonable cause for a complaint by two former CNU employees — a Black police officer and a white security guard with an adopted Black daughter — who had quit after two campus officers used racial slurs and made death threats. The EEOC urged CNU to rehire the complainants, pay their lost wages and discipline the offending officers.
Trible refused. He said in an email to faculty and staff that CNU had investigated the case “aggressively and exhaustively” and “determined that these are unfounded allegations of disgruntled former employees.” The Department of Justice, to which the EEOC refers cases when its findings aren’t heeded, decided not to sue the university. The security guard, William Nowinsky, received the department’s approval to file a lawsuit, but couldn’t afford to do so.
After a white police officer murdered George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, in Minneapolis in May 2020, Trible emailed the CNU community, deploring not only the deaths of Floyd and other victims of police violence, but also the vandalism associated with protests sweeping the country. “My own son’s business,” a luxury clothing store in Richmond, “was ransacked, and all of his merchandise and cash register carried off,” Trible said. In response, 1,700 students and alumni signed a letter criticizing him as “tone deaf” to racism. Trible then apologized, writing, “I hear your cry for change. … Black lives matter to me and always have and always will.” CNU also created a scholarship in Floyd’s memory for undergraduates from underrepresented groups.
That summer, more than 180 CNU faculty members wrote to Trible and members of the school’s board, urging them “to recognize and address our own university’s role in reproducing systemic inequality. … We believe that demographic disparities, alongside a number of university policy decisions, foster an environment that produces a strong anti-Black bias.”
Among other policy changes requested in the letter, the writers urged CNU to make Martin Luther King Day a university holiday. Although Trible voted as a senator in 1983 for a national holiday in King’s honor, a ProPublica-VCIJ survey found that Christopher Newport was the last Virginia state university to recognize it as a holiday, not doing so until 2021. Asked why, CNU and Trible did not respond.
In 2019, the Phi Beta Kappa Society, which has almost 300 member colleges, rejected CNU’s request to set up a chapter on campus and encouraged the school to pursue greater diversity. “A diverse faculty, staff, and student body allows ideas to emerge for the benefit of the entire campus community,” Frederick M. Lawrence, the honor society’s secretary and CEO, wrote in a letter explaining the decision. “There are elements that Christopher Newport can point to with pride, especially that the Board of Visitors has affirmed the importance of free inquiry. It is important as well that the campus culture support that commitment.”
In the past, Trible has attributed the drop in Black enrollment to higher admissions standards, but neither he nor CNU answered a detailed list of questions about this and other aspects of his record as president. “We want to learn and understand the University’s full history,” current President William Kelly said in a statement. “As we examine our past, we seek to contribute to the future of Virginia and Newport News, our hometown that we cherish. We welcome local high school students to an innovative, no-cost, pre-college program. We’re offering expanded scholarships and direct admission to first-generation and low-income students. We are recruiting more diverse students and faculty and we are committed to building stronger connections with our neighbors and community.”
In a September message to faculty and staff, Kelly also acknowledged “the impacts on the community from the location and expansion of the campus.” Christopher Newport’s growth “has come at a human cost, and we must continue to learn about and understand our complicated history,” Kelly said.
As the campus expanded, so did Trible’s pay. Between 2010 and 2022, he earned at least $10 million in combined compensation from CNU and its real estate foundation. On average, Trible was paid $772,000 annually during this period, with roughly $425,000 coming from the university and $347,000 coming from the foundation, according to public tax filings. In all but one year between 2010 and 2021, Trible’s pay exceeded that of his counterpart at another state university in Virginia, Old Dominion, that has five times as many students as Christopher Newport, according to compensation data on the most recent tax forms from each school’s real estate foundation.
As a tenured professor in the department of leadership and American studies, Trible’s current salary is $524,000, paid by the real estate foundation, according to a university spokesperson. Trible is not teaching this year. According to his contract, he does not have “any obligations” this year. He may start teaching next year, the spokesperson said. The other former CNU president and distinguished professor, Anthony Santoro, who is teaching this year, is making $200,464. The current president, Kelly, a retired rear admiral and former superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, earns $400,000.
Trible’s post-presidential pay has become an issue on campus. At an all-faculty meeting in August 2022, James Bogenpohl, an associate professor of biology and neuroscience, asked provost Quentin Kidd how much Trible was making. Kidd said he didn’t know and faculty would have to submit a public records request, Bogenpohl said. They did so. At a similar meeting a year later, which included a discussion of budget cuts to faculty merit awards and research, Bogenpohl stood and read from Trible’s contract, questioning its generous terms in a time of belt-tightening. Some professors applauded, Bogenpohl said, while others looked shocked that he would criticize the revered ex-president. Trible didn’t attend the meeting. Kidd did not respond to a request for comment.
“Trible claims to love the university,” Bogenpohl said in an interview. “You would think if he’s going to take a year of leave, he might find it in his heart to take that year without a half-a-million-dollar bonus.”
The 76-year-old Trible descends from an old Virginia family. His roots stretch back centuries in Essex County, Virginia, a rural region of former plantations and small commercial ports along the Rappahannock River, about an hour northeast of Richmond.
One 19th-century ancestor, John Samuel Trible, was a doctor and plantation owner, according to the Essex County Historical Society. John S. Trible enslaved 19 people, including 11 females and 8 males between the ages of 1 and 70, according to the 1850 Federal Census Slave Schedule.
Paul Trible himself owns an antebellum plantation in Kilmarnock, Virginia, called Gascony, which was operated by slave labor in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1950s, his parents acquired the main home and property, which Trible eventually inherited. He has bought adjacent properties over the years, reassembling the original plantation. Gascony was named a Virginia landmark in March, and Trible’s application to the National Park Service to add it to the national register of historic places was pending as of June. A primary benefit of these designations is that owners may qualify for tax credits for renovations.
Trible’s father, Paul Trible Sr., was a business executive, and the family moved frequently. Paul Trible Jr. grew up in Richmond and New Orleans and graduated from high school near Scranton, Pennsylvania.
As an undergraduate at private, all-male Hampden-Sydney College in southwestern Virginia, he made his goal clear. “I want to be president of the United States,” Trible told his adviser, according to “Crazy as Hell: The Story of the Transformation of Christopher Newport University” by Ellen Vaughn, which was copyrighted by the university’s education foundation and is dedicated to Trible and his wife, Rosemary.
Trible attended law school at Washington and Lee University, where Robert E. Lee became president after commanding Confederate forces in the Civil War. He was elected to Congress in 1976, before his 30th birthday. When he sought reelection two years later, his Democratic opponent criticized him for voting against every priority advocated by the Congressional Black Caucus.
Trible “has one of the worst records in the entire Congress when it comes to issues important to blacks,” read a campaign ad by Democrat Lewis Puller. Trible responded that it was ridiculous to characterize his entire record on the basis of 16 votes.
Trible won anyway, and then was elected to the Senate in 1982. A staunch supporter of Ronald Reagan, Trible was viewed as a pragmatist, not a firebrand. Conservative on social issues — he opposed abortion except to save the pregnant person’s life — he worked across the aisle to support public education.
In 1988, during his last full year in the Senate, Trible and Virginia’s other Republican senator, John W. Warner, backed the nomination of a local lawyer to the federal bench. The nomination died in committee after it was revealed that the attorney belonged to the James River Country Club in Newport News, which would not admit its first Black member until 1990. Newport News leaders may have wanted to uproot a middle-class Black community nearby because it was close to the country club, where the city’s business and political elite played golf, according to CNU historian Phillip Hamilton.
Instead of running for reelection, Trible sought the Republican nomination for governor. He lost and returned to practicing law. He also served on CNU’s board of visitors. When CNU’s president, Santoro, announced in 1995 that he would resign, Trible was named to the search committee for a new president. After reviewing dozens of applications,Trible surprised other committee members by offering himself as a candidate.
“I haven’t labored in the academic world,” he told the search committee, according to “Crazy as Hell.” “But I have learned important lessons in government service. I know and love this community and Virginia, and I’ve come to know and love this school.”
Trible brought his conservative politics and values to his presidency. For example, his administration imposed traditional standards of fashion. Students who worked part time for the university had to abide by dress codes. In 2013, the code required student employees to wear “modest” clothes and jewelry “in good taste.” Only women could have fingernail polish, makeup or earrings — and no more than two earrings per earlobe. Visible tattoos were “not acceptable.” By 2020, the policy was less specific, but it still said that tattoos and piercings other than earrings could not be visible.
If Trible was going to be at an event, “you better wear a tie,” Bogenpohl said.
When Trible arrived, the school had a small endowment and an unimposing campus. Trible proved to be an effective fundraiser. After he networked with politicians across the state in 1996, the legislature increased CNU’s funding by 21%, the largest hike of any university that year, according to “Crazy as Hell.”
Trible developed a close relationship with Smithfield Foods in nearby Smithfield, Virginia, the world’s largest pork producer. In 2005, a $5 million donation from Smithfield established a business school at CNU. Two years later, Trible joined Smithfield’s board. The company foundation again donated $5 million in 2011, plus $1 million from its chief executive and his wife for CNU’s chapel, which opened in 2012 and features a marble entranceway, a 60-foot cupola and a main hall seating 325 people.
One of Trible’s early moves as president was to establish a real estate foundation — a common strategy at Virginia public universities to reduce reliance on state financing for major projects. It became a vehicle for Christopher Newport to buy and develop adjacent properties, displacing dozens more Black families and a Black church. It offered Trible six-figure bonuses for fundraising for new construction. The foundation also built a five-bedroom, five-bathroom presidential mansion for Trible on the waterfront, with a library, a reception hall and four fireplaces, according to the local newspaper.
During his presidency, Trible has said, the university underwent a $1 billion renovation and expansion. In 2019, The Princeton Review ranked CNU as the 17th-most-beautiful campus in America.
“Paul Trible was a builder,” former president Santoro said. “Just look at the place.”
Trible’s plans to reshape the student body were equally ambitious. Christopher Newport’s original mission was to serve the rapidly growing student population in the blue-collar Tidewater region. Trible had a different idea. His vision, he told the university alumni magazine in 2006, was to “offer a private school experience at a public university — great teaching, small classes, lots of personal attention and a marvelous sense of community.”
During his tenure, CNU moved away from vocational programs. In the early 2000s, facing state budget cuts, it eliminated a bachelor’s degree program in nursing. Although data on the program’s enrollment by race was unavailable, nationally 11% of nursing graduates are Black. It also planned to scuttle teacher education but compromised, after strong criticism from the local community, by creating a master’s degree program.
CNU also pivoted to recruiting students from the wealthy suburbs of Richmond and northern Virginia. School officials courted high school guidance counselors there and held annual recruiting events at the opulent, late-19th-century Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, according to Vaughn’s book.
Trible himself pitched CNU at the Jefferson Hotel in the fall of 2019, said William Gordon, who attended the session as a prospective student. The event was known at Gordon’s suburban Richmond high school as a way for early admission applicants to make an impression, he said. Gordon, who is Black, said he soon noticed how few other Black students were there. “It was like to the point where, if anybody Black was in that room, you would give a little nod,’ he said.
After Trible’s speech, Gordon and other students lined up to meet him. Trible wrote down many of their names and CNU followed up by immediately accepting some of them, Gordon said. His own acceptance was deferred, but he ultimately enrolled.
In the long term, CNU has struggled to attract enough high-achieving students from outside its home region. In Trible’s first decade as president, the number of CNU applicants soared and its acceptance rate dropped from 82% to about half. The average SAT score of its students rose by more than 200 points, according to media reports, and the graduation rate increased.
But CNU couldn’t sustain this success. Its yield rate — the percentage of admitted students who enroll — has plunged from almost 40% in 2004 and 2005 to 17% in 2021 and 18% in 2022, according to data from the university’s office of institutional research.
CNU accepted at least 85% of applicants in 2021 and 2022. Even so, enrollment has skidded 14% in the past decade, increasing CNU’s reliance on state funding.
CNU was founded to serve the Newport News area. But by 2014, few of its students were local. The proportion of freshmen coming from Newport News and neighboring Hampton, which both have a plurality Black population, had plummeted from 9% as recently as 2005 to 3.5%. The two cities, Newport News sheriff Gabriel Morgan said, weren’t “seen as the pool to draw from.”
As Morgan, who is Black, drove or biked past the campus almost every day, he realized that it didn’t reflect the city’s makeup. He told then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, who agreed that CNU should have more diverse voices in its leadership and appointed Morgan to CNU’s board.
“Trible didn’t have the benefit of people challenging his policies,” Morgan said.
With Morgan’s support, CNU implemented the Community Captains program in 2019. Sophomores at Newport News high schools who have at least a B-plus average and would be the first in their family to go to college are paired with a CNU student mentor and receive academic preparation as well as early admission. Aided by an influx of Community Captains, the number of Black freshmen from Newport News increased to 44 in fall 2021, up from a low of 14 in 2018, but still below levels seen earlier in Trible’s presidency.
In 2018, Trible established a President’s Council on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Two years later, he created the position of chief diversity officer.
Still, Morgan felt that progress was slow and that other board members were more enthusiastic about new buildings than they were about diversity.
“If you’re white, straight and Christian, you’re going to love Christopher Newport,” said Morgan, who left the board in 2022. “If you’re anything other than that, it’s going to be a struggle for you. Unfortunately.”
CNU spokesperson Jim Hanchett said that the university has stepped up its in-person recruiting visits to high schools in the Hampton Roads area, which includes Newport News and Hampton, focusing on underserved communities. It is also offering “immediate, direct admission” to more than 30,000 out-of-state students who come from low-income families, who would be the first in their families to go to college, or who are members of underrepresented groups, Hanchett said.
CNU has a Black student organization and several Black fraternities and sororities. But current and former students told ProPublica that they found it hard to be Black on a predominantly white campus. In 2021, in his second semester at CNU, William Gordon transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University due to a dispute over his financial aid and a campus environment that he felt was unwelcoming to Black students, he said.
Matthew Johnson, a Black CNU senior who is a resident assistant in a dormitory, said that a drunken white student there once called him the N-word. When he objected, the student said that Johnson had misheard. “He told me he said ‘bigger,’” recalled Johnson, who decided not to pursue the matter.
The Rev. William Spencer, current pastor of a Baptist church that used to be the religious and social center of the Black neighborhood next to campus but has since relocated, said that the school’s diversity efforts are more show than substance. “I’m looking for diversity and inclusion to not just be a word thrown around like a used toothpick but to actually mean something,” Spencer said at the panel discussion in November on the university’s history.
Black faculty members also said they feel isolated. Trible’s predecessor, Santoro, hired about a dozen Black professors over the course of his presidency, including psychology professor Shelia Greenlee and her husband, political scientist Harry Greenlee. The Greenlees soon began hosting a monthly Friday-night dinner for other Black professors, where they discussed topics such as establishing a Black faculty caucus and how to support Black students.
“It was just an opportunity for us to bond, to connect and to feel comfortable that there was someone else here other than you because there are so few of us,” Shelia Greenlee said.
As several Black professors left, the dinners became less frequent. After Trible became president, the Greenlees wanted to revive them, but there weren’t enough Black faculty and some of those that were hired didn’t stay long. With her husband’s retirement two years ago, she said, the number of Black professors at CNU with tenure — lifetime job security — dropped by one-third, from three to two. One of them was Greenlee herself.
One deterrent to hiring Black faculty was a policy adopted at least 15 years ago under Trible. It said that tenure-track candidates should “ideally” have at least one credential, such as a doctorate, from a university ranked as one of the 74 best in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, or a bachelor’s degree from one of the top 50 national universities or top 89 liberal arts colleges. Only one historically Black college or university, Spelman College in Georgia, made any of those lists. Another possible credential was Phi Beta Kappa membership, but only four HBCUs have chapters. In their 2020 letter to Trible, faculty members urged CNU to “immediately abandon” its reliance on these hiring lists, “thus eliminating the implicit and explicit racial bias.” Instead, CNU expanded the criteria to include a degree from one of the top 25 historically Black colleges.
Patricia Hopkins, a Black associate professor of English, realized when she moved to a new office in 2010 just how much of an anomaly she was. While she and her daughter were shelving books in her new office, a white janitorial staffer came to her door. “Faculty are going to be here any second to move into these offices, and you haven’t even dusted yet,” he said, tossing rags and a can of furniture polish at her.
“It never occurred to him that I was actually Dr. Hopkins and this was my office,” she recalled. “The likelihood is, he took an educated guess and on this campus, I’m more likely to be the cleaner than be the professor.”