Robert Lambeth and his wife, Lynn, with some of their llamas. This was taken at the Blessing of the Animals last fall at Trinity Episcopal Church after the ceremonies concluded. Courtesy of Lambeth family.

There’s not a college within 20 miles of Bedford. 

But for the last 40 years, the town has served as the heartbeat of Virginia’s private college system.

Robert Lambeth. Courtesy of CICV.

Since 1983, from the law office founded by his father, Robert Lambeth Jr. has presided over the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia, or CICV, a nonprofit organization representing 27 accredited nonprofit independent colleges and universities in Virginia, from Appalachian School of Law and Emory & Henry to George Washington University and everywhere in between.Since taking over CICV from the organization’s founder, Lambeth, 73, has been single-minded in marshaling the resources of the commonwealth’s individual colleges, when appropriate, to keep them affordable and accessible for Virginians from all walks of life.

So much so — and surprisingly to some — Virginia’s private colleges, and not its public and community college counterparts, actually educate a higher percentage of underrepresented populations, according to the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia.

A news release announcing Lambeth’s retirement touts his signature achievements:

  • A Tuition Assistance Grant program of $4,500 for the 20,000 students attending Virginia private colleges in 2022-23 ($5,000 the following year). More than 300,000 students have been helped since the program’s launch.
  • An innovative self-insured health insurance program called the Virginia Private Colleges Benefits Consortium (VPCBC) that covers 3,300 CICV employees, or 6,100 Virginians in all, and provides financial stability to CICV institutions.
  • A first-of-its-kind in the U.S. program that pooled individual colleges’ retirement plans into one “multiple employer plan,” or MEP, that not only lowered administrative costs but, with $1 billion in assets, allowed CICV to hire a financial firm to do face-to-face consulting for all employees.
  • A 2017 solar initiative, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Sunshot Solar Grant Program, that one day will reduce energy bills and the carbon footprint for independent colleges.

But his proudest accomplishment is the lifelong, life-changing education that independent colleges offer to families, especially those who are considered “underrepresented:” non-white, low-income and first-generation.

“Sixty-nine percent of our students come from underrepresented,” Lambeth says. “At a public four-year institution it’s 55%. If you look at eligibility for the federal Pell Grant, 45% of private college students are eligible, but only 26% of public and 30 percent of community college students. That’s a shocking number for many people. We have admitted and worked with and graduated a lot of low-income and first generation students. That’s rewarding to the Commonwealth and to Southwest and Southside. And we’ll keep working on that.”

Dr. David Johns, president of Ferrum College and CICV board chair, said in a statement that Lambeth has been “a tireless champion for Virginia’s independent colleges for decades. In his role, Robert has collaborated with lawmakers on all sides of the aisle to secure funding necessary to make students’ dreams come true. … We are stronger and wiser thanks to Robert’s guidance and friendship.”

From the lawmaker side, State Sen. Steve Newman agreed: “As a legislator, I appreciate Robert’s ability to work with everyone, regardless of their party affiliation or point of view. The Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia has been well served by Robert Lambeth’s leadership and he will be sorely missed.”

Relationships with the 120 college presidents and countless legislators he’s worked with through the decades are what Lambeth will miss most.“Looking back I never envisioned 40 years ago that I’d be doing this 40 years later,” Lambeth said. “One of best things is I work with very nice people. Generally speaking, Virginia has good state government, and there was never a point where I wanted to work somewhere else. I just took it year by year, presidents treated me very well, and I’m still here.”

* * *

Lambeth learned first-hand the benefits of a Virginia independent as an undergraduate at Randolph Macon College.

“It was the close personal attention,” he said. “I was a political science major and I had a close relationship with my professors, sitting around a classroom with 15 students debating the future of the world. I had opportunities to do things I never thought I could do. I was encouraged to do the debate team. I was interested in journalism even though I’d never had any involvement with it, and I ended up editor of school newspaper. The opportunities to do things in small classes is the niche of private institutions that had a major impact on my life.” 

His family’s legacy in politics also impacted him.

His grandfather, S.S. Lambeth Jr., was an attorney who moved to Bedford in 1906 and was elected to both the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate. His father, Bolling Lambeth, began his law practice in 1940, served as Bedford County commonwealth’s attorney, and in 1964 bought the building that today houses CICV and Lambeth’s limited law practice. Bolling also founded the Roanoke River Basin Association, which was responsible for creating Smith Mountain Lake.

All these experiences led to his introduction to CICV. 

While in graduate school at the University of Virginia, Lambeth got a part-time job from Don Holden, the former CEO of Newport News Shipbuilding, who had helped raise money for some private colleges. Holden believed that Virginia’s independent schools could be strengthened if they pooled some resources, and so founded CICV in the basement of his Charlottesville home.

Lambeth’s first job was sticking pins in a state map showing where college trustees lived. His CICV work became far more complex years later after graduating University of Richmond Law School and returning to Bedford as a third-generation lawyer. 

Holden sold him on the presidency position by assuring him it was a part-time job that he could do in addition to his law practice. That proved to be a short-term prospect. 

Along with the TAG, VPCBC and retirement programs, Lambeth through the years helped the 27 college presidents, who were essentially his bosses, navigate an increasingly challenging market place. 

His tuition-dependent constituents have to compete with taxpayer subsidized public universities. Shrinking demographics make that pool of available students even scarcer. Plus, costs and demand for services — especially in technology, mental health resources and campus security —  are exponentially climbing.

“When I was in college, there was one officer, one car and no blue lights,” he reflected. “The whole attitude of higher education is changing. It’s a real tough business but we’re hanging in there.”

His latest initiative — perhaps not his last since his board has asked that he stay on during the search process for a new president — involves his colleges collaborating on Information Technology needs and maintenance. 

“It’s a real challenge for smaller colleges to provide all IT functions by themselves. So we’ve just started investigating whether there are ways we can collaborate on IT to share some of the IT challenges. We want to keep our administrative costs as low as possible and minimize our tuition increases.”

Among the biggest challenge facing Southwest and Southside Virginia, he says, is the cultural mindset of a higher education. Many first-generation students focus solely on one end-goal job that comes with a college degree rather than the versatile knowledge, critical thinking and writing skills developed by a broad, liberal arts curriculum.

“How often will young people have to change jobs?” he wonders. “It’s hard to explain that to families who have never experienced that.”

* * *

Lambeth is retiring as the longest serving president of a private college consortium in the U.S. “I’m the senior person,” he says.

From his home in Forest, he plans to involve himself more with nonprofits he holds dear like his alma mater Randolph Macon, a CICV member where he sits on the board of trustees, and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation that promotes conservation easements. 

He’ll support his wife Lynn Bebee’s work as a board member of Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson’s Bedford County retreat home.

And he’ll also spend more time with his beloved llamas: “The best thing about llamas is they don’t talk about government politics or higher ed. They’re good company.”

Michael Hemphill is a former award-winning newspaper reporter, and less lauded stay-at-home dad, who...