This profile of Dr. Irvin Griffin is part of the Trailblazer Profiles of the Belk Center for Leadership and Research at the Community College. The purpose of the NCCCS Trailblazer Profiles is to highlight and celebrate the work of Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic leaders within the North Carolina Community College system, with a particular focus on current and former community college presidents. This profile has been written along with the Oral History Interview Kit with Dr. Griffin which will soon be available in the Archives of the Southern Oral History Project. Interviews were conducted by staff members at the Belk Center for Community College Leadership in Spring, Summer, and Fall 2021. Individuals who contributed to profiles included Kenzi Bell, Audrey Jaeger, Erin Aucoin, Drisha Singleton, and Distinguished Individual Leaders. Through these interviews, the Belk Center team hopes to refocus conversations about who we consider important in the history of North Carolina’s community college leadership, celebrate the work of our Presidents of Color, and inspire support for diversifying the presidential leadership path.
When Dr. Irvin Griffin was asked to apply for a faculty position in the North Carolina community college system, he had doubts about the college’s readiness for an African-American president. He knew that if college was uncomfortable, there was nothing he could do to change that—in the end, he didn’t apply for the job. Months later, another college is in order, halifax community college, began a presidential search, and this time, Griffin applied. He was sworn in as president in December 2006, becoming the first African-American president in the history of Halifax Community College.
When he first arrived at Halifax Community College, the school was going through hard times and Griffin knew he would need to sell to the community over the college’s value.
“I’ve spent almost every Sunday in someone’s church or at someone’s anniversary party. I haven’t turned down an invitation for at least two or three years,” Griffin said.
His focus on community engagement and celebration has paid off, and he remembers the many occasions when people would say, “We’re so happy to see you—we never thought that would happen.”
At first, Griffin didn’t realize why the community thought his involvement was so great, but later on, he said, “I’ve realized that this place has always been a minority institution with almost a majority but has never had a black chief. For a lot of people, that was quite an accomplishment.” And later on, I do that too.”
For Griffin, this was a call to action. Realizing the value of his voice in the local community, he worked on finding ways to celebrate the diversity of the students he served. One of the initiatives he initiated was the annual celebrations of American Indian Heritage Month and Black History Month at Halifax Community College.
However, Griffin knew that celebration alone was not enough. He also had to make sure that all of his students had role models like themselves to look up to. Griffin says, “How can I have a school with 60% students of color and 20% of faculty of color? This is not a good look.”
Griffin’s work on racial equality has been recognized at Halifax Community College, and in 2016, Halifax Community College received the Southern District Equity Award from the National Association of Community College Trustees.
While Griffin was the first African-American president of Halifax Community College, it was no surprise that he was the first African-American person to hold a position of authority. Griffin was also the first African American professor at Southwest Virginia Community College in Richland, Virginia.
Griffin says, “When I went to work in Southwest Virginia, I didn’t know I was the first African American on the faculty there with a rank. It didn’t even occur to me that I could be the first.”
Griffin was successful as a professor and administrator, eventually moving on to roles at other community colleges, including West Virginia State Community and Technical College (founding president) before his chair at Halifax Community College.
While Griffin did not realize that he would be a pioneer, his career has always centered on providing equitable access to education. He received his BA in Teacher Education from Bluefield State College and began his career as a special education teacher in an elementary school. He then pursued a master’s degree in college personnel services from Western Illinois University and a doctorate in education at a community college from Virginia Polytechnic and State University.
One group that Griffin believes has a lot of power to focus equity at the local level is the community college boards. He says he realized early on that “boards of directors make a huge difference in the world because the main thing they do is pick a president.” “If you have a council with one or two people of color and no one other than a white man as chair, I think it’s like a leap of faith,” he says. He is grateful to the Halifax Community College Board of Directors for their courage in appointing him.
“In their first board meeting, I told them I wanted to thank them for their courage because they had the courage to hire the right person.”
He knows that many boards of directors have not been as comfortable with someone as aggressive as they have been in providing leadership, new programs, and services to students, faculty, staff, and the communities the college serves. From the start, Griffin has been committed to advocating for student and community success. While he is grateful to be named president, he knows he shouldn’t have been the first person of color to lead the predominantly African American school.
“I think part of my problem with the system is that you almost have to be a superman or a superwoman to be hired. [as a person of color]. “
Griffin worked hard to make sure the path for future community college presidents was easier. When advising interns about working with their board, Griffin says, “I always tell my interns to study the board, make up the board, see who they are, and when you get in, really know everyone’s name and put yourself in the hot seat because they need to know who you are.” Especially when they’ve never seen people like you before.”
During the 11 years that he served as president of Halifax Community College, Griffin’s hard work had a major impact on the college and the surrounding community. Throughout his tenure, the college has received more than $15 million in local, state, and federal grants. In addition, the college received the 2016 Advanced Diversity Award, presented by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), and the 2017 AACC Community College Planning and Leadership Award.
Individually, Griffin has also received prestigious awards, including The Order of the Long Leaf Pine in 2017 for exemplary service to the state of North Carolina by Governor Roy Cooper, the Governor’s Living the Dream Award and the West Virginian Distinguished Award.
Despite all the praise Griffin’s work has received, at the end of the day, he says, “It’s very important for students to know why we’re here. It’s good to be president, but it doesn’t matter if we’re not serving our students and not serving our community. That’s why I I founded the Dr. Ervin V. Griffin Program, Father of Presidential Scholarships at our foundation and started the endowment with a personal check for $50,000. At my retirement party, we raised another $33,505 to give the fund over $83,000 but still less than my $100,000 goal Since my retirement, I have continued to raise money for the Griffin Presidential Scholars Program and on June 21, 2021, I made a final donation of $2,652 to bring the Endowment Fund up to $100,000. Providing money to current and future students has been one of the highlights of my presidency and life.”
When Griffin retired in 2017, he knew the business wasn’t done yet. He is pleased that the current president, Dr. Michael Elam, continues to pursue the stock business at Halifax Community College, but there is still work to be done at a system level.
Despite the distance North Carolina still has to go, Griffin believes in the value of the community college system.
“I think the North Carolina community college system is one of the best, if not the best, in the world.”