Wilmington University honors its barrier-breaking president

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When LaVerne T. Harmon took over as president of Wilmington University in July, she became the first black woman to lead a Delaware college or university.

Since January, however, two women have been at the helm of a Delaware post-secondary institution. That’s because Wilma Mishoe was named as interim president at Delaware State University in January when Harry Williams resigned.

Harmon’s elevation to the highest post at the nearly 50-year-old New Castle-based school whose student population has mushroomed to 20,000 was formalized Thursday during an inauguration ceremony at the Chase Center on Wilmington’s riverfront.

Harmon succeeded Jack Varsalona, who held the post for 12 years, during which the former college gained university status.

Harmon began working at Wilmington University in 1989, serving in various roles while earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the school. After earning doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Pennsylvania, she became Wilmington’s executive vice president in 2014.

When Harmon took the post last year, Varsalona said Harmon has “shown that she understands what is going on throughout the university. She was an adult learner with a full-time job, just like the majority of our students. She is now a brilliant administrator who leads with both knowledge and passion for the university’s mission.”

Before the ceremony Thursday, Harmon talked exclusively with WHYY about her vision for the school that’s geared toward working adults.

She said she’s focused on continuing the school’s tradition of providing affordable tuition and keeping student debt low while providing excellent student services and quality curriculum. She also wants to build more partnerships with the regional corporate community.

Wilmington University now has 11 locations in Delaware and New Jersey, and a new mini-campus is set to open next year on U.S. 202 near Delaware’s northwestern border with Pennsylvania.

“One of our goals is to maintain a short travel distance for any of our students,” Harmon said. “Because we’re a university that provides convenience, we make sure that our students have no more than a 15- to 20-minute commute to get to school.”

Board chairman Joseph Farnan lauded Harmon as embodying the school’s philosophy of providing working adults with opportunities for advancement. Her barrier-breaking promotion is a point of pride for Farnan.

“I think it’s of particular importance to the state of Delaware,” he said. “We’re over 20,000 students, and she’s the first black woman to lead an institution that large and that ingrained in the community.”

Harmon is taking her status as the first black woman to head a Delaware university in stride.

“I understand that none of this is about me,” Harmon said. “It’s my accomplishments and my achievements and how I can inspire others to reach their goals.”


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