Richard Hodges: The community college system Dana Hamel helped create democratized higher education in Virginia

Home|Blog|Richard Hodges: The community college system Dana Hamel helped create democratized higher education in Virginia

By Richard A. Hodges, Ed.D.

Dana Hamel is one of the most extraordinary people you’d ever hope to meet. Now at the age of 97, he once steadfastly and modestly took on the task of redefining Virginia higher education by creating what is known today as the Virginia Community College System (VCCS). The significance and importance of the creation of its predecessor, the Virginia Technical College System cannot be over stated, for it was in that System the groundwork was laid for the creation of one of the most revered and celebrated community college systems in the United States.

Image of Richard Hodges and Dana Hamel

Richard Hodges (l.) interviewed Dana Hamel 17 times as he prepared his 2016 doctoral dissertation on the creation of what would become the VCCS. They are shown here in October 2019.

It all began in the years immediately following the United States Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v Board of Education and Virginia’s adoption of a set of laws known as Massive Resistance Laws. The 1954 and 1955 Brown rulings marked an end to the practice of segregating public schools. Massive Resistance laws were specifically designed to undermine Brown and continue the practice of segregating public schools. These laws included giving the Governor the power to close schools or school systems that attempted to comply with Brown, the withholding of state funding to school districts, and the creation of taxpayer funded vouchers for private schools.

An unintended consequence of the contested environment of Massive Resistance was its profoundly negative effects on Virginia business and industrial sectors. Throughout the first half of the 1950s Virginia had experienced steady industrial growth by attracting businesses, such as General Electric to locate facilities in the Commonwealth. With the closing of school districts that attempted to comply with Brown, Virginia’s reputation eroded rapidly from a forward-looking state to one of a backwardly focused nonprogressive society, resulting in no new industry locating to Virginia in 1958. With the closing of Norfolk public schools, even the United States Navy questioned whether it should continue to have a base at Norfolk. The concern was that Navy personnel would not be able to educate their children.

Born from this divisive and contentious environment was the Virginia Industrialization Group. The Group, as they referred to themselves, consisted of business and industrial leaders from all over the Commonwealth. Its leadership included future Supreme Court Justice, Lewis Powell, railroad executive Stuart Saunders, and newspaper publisher and future founder of the Weather Channel, Frank Batten.

In mid-December, 1958 The Group held its inaugural dinner meeting at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond. Guest of Honor for the evening was Governor J. Lindsay Almond. Each member of The Group expressed their views on Massive Resistance and its devastating effects. At great political cost, In January, 1959 Almond announced he could no longer support Massive Resistance, thereby putting an official end to the enforcement of those draconian laws.

Almond began working with members of The Group to rebuild Virginia’s economic base and its national reputation. Albertis Harrison, who soon replaced Almond as governor, was a strong believer in a push to modernize Virginia’s industrial sector. At the heart of this modernization would be the creation of the Department of Technical Education and a statewide system of technical colleges.

To oversee the newly formed Department of Technical Education, in 1964, Governor Harrison chose the Director of Roanoke Technical Institute, Dr. Dana B. Hamel. Born in Maine and having grown up in the coal mining community of Johnstown, Pennsylvania Hamel had a natural ability to connect with people from all walks of life. He also had an outstanding record of accomplishments as an educator in Ohio where he served in several positions including college president. If you ask Dr. Hamel if he knew he was making history back in those early days, he would modestly and politely tell you the goal for him and the Board for Technical Education (in whom he gives full credit for the creation and success of the Technical and later Community College System) was to provide Virginians access to high quality, affordable education and training.

Within 18 months of the formation of the Technical Board, plans for what would become the VCCS were in place and over the next ten years all 23 colleges became reality. These colleges had an immediate impact on the economic and educational lives of Virginians and a profound and everlasting effect on the social culture of Virginia.
Governor Almond’s withdrawal of support for Massive Resistance in 1959 did not mean attitudes toward public school desegregation automatically changed. It would be almost 10 years before the architecture of Massive Resistance was fully dismantled. Dana Hamel and The Virginia Technical College System played a large part in the dismantling and arguably making desegregation a reality.

The Technical College System was conceived at a time when public schools in Prince Edward County had just reopened after remaining closed for five years (1959-1964). Virginia was still very much a segregated society. So how is it Dr. Hamel and his Board were able to create a fully integrated, open-admission system?

I asked this question several times over the course of my research and the answer was always the same. It was not important to Dr. Hamel and the Board that these schools be segregated, what was important was that Virginia effectively and efficiently prepare a workforce that could meet the challenges of that time, and for years to come.

The Technical College System, unlike its university counterparts, was never burdened by a history of segregated classrooms. When the first colleges opened their doors in Roanoke and Bailey’s Crossroads in 1965 all students, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender sat side-by-side learning and building better lives for themselves and their State.

In 1960 the rate of poverty in Virginia was over 30%. By 1970, that rate had been reduced to 15%. I believe, this was in no small part a result of a citizenry having been given the ability to pursue their dreams through access to post-secondary education.

To see Hodges’ doctoral dissertation, click here.

Editor’s Note:
Richard Hodges was on the faculty at Thomas Nelson Community College 2010-2020, most of that time as Director of Learning Resources. He became Director of Libraries at Florida SouthWestern State College in July 2020. He can be reached via email: richard.hodges@fsw.edu

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