Standing before hundreds of fellow graduates on the Turbyfill Quad at Roanoke College, valedictorian Charissa Roberson praised faculty and administrators for their “incredible support” during her years there.
She recalled how the college president, Michael Maxey, once stopped on campus to help carry her groceries back to her dorm. He had seen her walking with a cane because she had injured her knee while cycling.
“He embodies the kind of selfless generosity that makes Roanoke so special,” said Roberson, one of five valedictorians in the Class of 2022, during the commencement on May 7.
Roberson, a major in French and creative writing from New Market, Maryland, added later in an interview that Maxey “has that dignity and caring of a president, but at the same time he’s very humble and down-to-Earth.”
In his 15 years as president of Roanoke College, by all accounts, Maxey has been a dedicated servant who genuinely cares about students and employees, and makes them feel welcome. During his regular walks around campus, sporting one of his signature bow ties, he would stop to shake hands with students, making a point to learn all their names. He and his wife Terri, a beloved member of the campus community and a mentor of students, often would join students for meals in the dining hall.
Maxey’s leadership will be missed when he retires this summer. The 70-year-old native of Bassett, a small community in Henry County, said his decision to leave was difficult, but that he wanted to do so “while I’m still full blast.”
“I feel good about the condition I’m leaving things in,” said Maxey, the school’s 11th president since its founding in 1842.
Frank Shushok Jr., the vice president for student affairs at Virginia Tech, will succeed Maxey as president of Roanoke College.
Maxey, who has held several leadership roles at the college starting in 1985, said he is proud of the emphasis the private college places on experiential learning, providing students with opportunities for research, internships, studying elsewhere, performing in the arts, and service learning. Prior to the pandemic, more than 90% of graduates have had at least one of these experiences, adding value to the broad education they received as liberal arts students, he said.
The college also has sought to modernize its studies, adding a variety of majors such as engineering science, exercise science, data science, creative writing, education, and public health. The faculty recently approved a Master of Business Administration program that will be offered in summer 2023. It will be the first graduate program at Roanoke College in about 100 years.
Eighteen students won prestigious Fulbright awards to study over the past eight years, Maxey said.
Maxey is credited with overseeing construction and renovation of many buildings on campus, including completion of the Cregger Center, an athletic and events facility that has hosted national championship games. He described the campus upgrades as necessary to compete with other schools in what has become “an arms race in some ways for higher education.”
Maxey said the college’s endowment is about $170 million, including real estate holdings. The college hopes to triple that over the next decade.
“Where we are right now is respectable, but it is insufficient for offering the kind of experience that we want to,” he said.
Under Maxey’s leadership, Roanoke College has sought to improve diversity and has formed a center to examine the role of slavery in the early history of the school and in the larger community.
Maxey hired Teresa Ramey last year as Roanoke College’s first vice president for community, diversity and inclusion. In an interview, Ramey said Maxey and the entire campus welcomed her from the start.
“I’ve gotten nothing but support from him,” Ramey said of Maxey. “It’s a really exciting time for the college and for what I’m doing because the college is on board for this and it’s a great feeling.”
In 2002, the college bought the historic Monterey House, at the corner of High and Clay streets, and later renovated the former slave quarters on the property that now is home to the school’s Center for Studying Structures of Race.
The center was formed in 2019 to examine institutional racism and the legacies of enslaved people at Roanoke College and beyond. Its genealogy project has identified at least 500 enslaved people, some of whom were owned by affiliates of Roanoke College.
The center’s research also has uncovered documents listing the college’s founder and first president, David F. Bittle, as the owner of an enslaved person. Several former members of the college’s Board of Trustees and faculty members also held people in slavery. The school’s administration building and Miller Hall were built by enslaved people before the Civil War. And several buildings at the college are named for people who held people in slavery.
After more research is done, the college ultimately plans to erect a permanent memorial to enslaved people on the campus, acknowledging their role in the history of the college, said Jesse Bucher, the college historian and director of the Center for Studying Structures of Race.
“We’ll probably be working on it for the next decade,” Bucher said.
Bucher said that Maxey, a past chairman of the Salem Historical Society’s board of directors, has been directly involved in the work of the Center for Studying Structures of Race. Maxey ensured that research and other educational opportunities were provided to students by the program, which holds guest lectures and has offered new courses, including ones titled Race and Disability and Brown vs. Board of Education.
“I’m really proud of it,” Maxey said of the center. “I think that we have an opportunity to certainly help our students understand a part of history that was oftentimes either ignored or avoided, and I think that it’s a truth-telling center.”
Over the years, the demographics of students at Roanoke College have become more diverse. When Maxey was vice president of enrollment and dean of admissions for the college, in the late 1980s, only 1% of students were people of color. Now, 18% of the student body is made up of persons of color.
“I think there’s more work to do,” Maxey said, adding that he would like to see more Latinx students at the college.
Starting with the fall 2022 semester, the college “reset” its published tuition costs from $46,510 to $33,510, not including room and board and other fees. College spokeswoman Teresa Gereaux said the change improved transparency by publishing the amount that many students already were paying after receiving financial assistance.
Like many institutions, Roanoke College has faced challenges during the pandemic, including lower enrollment, which has dropped from 2,005 students in fall 2019 to 1,865 in fall 2021. The school’s highest enrollment was 2,103 students in fall 2010.
A year and a half ago, a cyberattack over the winter break shut down the college’s phones, email and data for about three weeks, delaying the start to the spring semester, Maxey said.
Over the years, Maxey has worked with the city of Salem to resolve “town-gown” tensions between students living off campus and longtime residents. A task force that includes students and nonstudent residents of Salem, along with city officials and college representatives, has found solutions that have diminished much of the tension, Gereaux said.
Among faculty members at Roanoke College, Maxey’s leadership has been seen as inspiring and he has made members feel seen and heard, said Shannon Anderson, who was leader of faculty governance during this past academic year.
“He knows the names of your children and he knows where you’re from,” Anderson said. “You’re not just a face in the crowd. You’re a person.”
Anderson also is an associate professor of sociology and coordinates the college’s public health studies program, which held its first classes in fall 2017. She said Maxey has been a huge supporter of all health-related programming and of improving health equity in the region.
For all his accomplishments, the qualities that people may remember most about Maxey are his personality, humility and generosity of spirit. When he is asked about his successes, he points out that he’s had help achieving them from hundreds of people.
Matt Chittum, a former veteran reporter at The Roanoke Times who graduated from Roanoke College in 1989, once saw Maxey walking across Market Street near the Presidents Home with one of his sons, carrying a handsaw, with sawdust on his dress shirt. Chittum recalled that Maxey and his son had cut down part of a tree hanging over a neighbor’s driveway, instead of having someone from the college’s grounds crew handle it.
“That just really struck me as typical of Mike,” Chittum said. “He pulled a ladder out of the garage and grabbed his son and went over there and took a saw and handled it like any other neighbor. There’s a humility there that isn’t always associated with positions like this.”
In 2007, during Maxey’s first semester as president, he told 300 to 400 people at a meeting of prospective students that his goal was to know the first names of 400 new students every year. He kept a list in his desk at home of names to help him remember them each year.
“I have students through the years, oftentimes, they’ll come up and they’ll test me and say, ‘I’ll bet you don’t remember my name,’” Maxey said. “So it just was a way of being approachable and affirming the students here.”
Another special thing for students is that, during senior week, they get to wood-burn their names into a large bookcase in the basement of the Presidents Home, where he lives with Terri Maxey. The students can come back and see their name on the bookcase at their 50th reunion.
Maxey also is widely known for his bow tie collection. If you ask someone at the information desk at the student center how many bow ties Maxey currently owns, they’ll tell you, he said. The current count is 266.
Maxey also started a tradition of giving students lessons on how to tie a bow tie before the annual President’s Ball. He once taught more than 40 people to tie bow ties in a single lesson.
“There’s a lot of fun that goes with this job,” he said. “Working with young people is a joy.”
In retirement, Maxey said he wants to make a meaningful contribution to the community in some way and to help out new college presidents. He also plans to spend more time with his wife and their three grown sons, Michael Maxey II, Stuart Maxey and Jack Maxey, and his grandson, Michael Maxey III.