William B. Harvey, EdD, became the first African American to serve as head of a European university when he was appointed rector of Danubius University in Galati, Romania, in January 2021. With offices located in Galati as well as Washington, D.C., he oversees the executive management of the university and provides leadership in its planning and operations. He also serves to advance the university’s role as an international institution of higher learning dedicated to bridging the East and West.

Harvey’s extensive career in higher education has included full professorships at the University of Virginia, North Carolina State University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and North Carolina A&T University. As a renowned leader in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), Harvey previously served as the founding president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, vice president and director of the American Council on Education’s Center for the Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity, vice president for diversity and equity at the University of Virginia, and more.

Harvey recently spoke with INSIGHT about his unique role at Danubius, the challenges and opportunities facing higher education at home and abroad, and the future of cross-cultural connections. His responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Why did Danubius University decide to hire an American to be their rector/chief executive officer? For the past few years, Danubius University has been interested in increasing its visibility in the international higher education arena, particularly in the U.S. My first visit to the institution was in 2013 when I was invited to attend their international education conference. I presented a paper titled, interestingly enough, “Considering the Possible Future of American Higher Education.” During the conference, I had an opportunity to meet with the person who was then serving as rector and shared with him some thoughts about how Danubius might begin to attract American students and scholars. We established a friendship, through which I have provided my input and ideas over the last several years about the administration, management, and strategic planning for the university.    

When the former rector was informed by the Romanian Ministry of Education last year that he was term-limited in his position, I was approached by the vice chair of the Danubius board to see if I might be interested in assuming the position. We then had several rounds of discussion over a period of months — primarily centered around the recently developed managerial plan of the university — which reinforced the concept of establishing relations and partnerships with American institutions, organizations, and individuals. I then decided to submit my materials for consideration. I think that the search committee’s awareness of the length and breadth of my career and my association with several institutions of higher education and professional organizations were significant factors in their review and approval of my candidacy.

Why did you decide to take on this role? I equivocated for several months about whether the rector’s position was right for me. Ultimately, after some important agreements were reached, I decided that the appointment could work. All of the conversations regarding the position took place during the earlier days of the pandemic and then extended into the last part of 2020. As a result, the concern that I had about being in Romania to start my term in office was eased somewhat since the university wasn’t physically open for conducting business.

Further, I didn’t believe that the best use of my time as rector would be spent by being physically present on the university campus all of the time. I had conveyed to the search committee my belief that a significant part of the value I could bring to Danubius would be through reaching out and reconnecting with many of the people and institutions that I had developed relationships with here in the U.S. So, since international travel wasn’t even permitted at the time that I assumed my position in January 2021, I was afforded the time and opportunity to establish an American office of Danubius University, which is now open in Washington, D.C.   

Of course, there were obviously a range of managerial concerns that still needed to be dealt with on the campus itself, and this situation was resolved when the previous rector agreed to stay on with the university in a capacity that we would describe in American administrative terms as the “chief operating officer,” with responsibility for day-to-day, on-the-scene oversight of programs and facilities.

What does it mean to you personally to be the first African American to lead a European university? Certainly, I’m gratified and honored to be the first African American to lead a European university, and I’m also humbled by the appointment. I’m not afraid to admit that I have many, many friends and colleagues who have the appropriate skills and accomplishments to carry out the responsibilities that this position demands, so it just happened that I received an appointment as rector before one of them did. If I’ve opened a door so that a new realm of leadership opportunities is made available to other African American educators, I would be quite pleased with that outcome. Having been around for a while, I know that it’s not uncommon for academicians to place themselves on pedestals of their own making, so I’m just trying to stay grounded and make sure that I leave a path that others can follow. 

Danubuis University Rector William B. Harvey (left) and university President Corneliu Andy Pusca at their school’s 2021 graduation ceremony

Will not being on the campus full-time affect your ability to lead the university effectively? I don’t regard not being on the campus full-time as a liability, as long as the various administrative functions are being carried out in an efficient manner and being appropriately supervised in the process. Between WhatsApp, Zoom, Skype, and email, I am in continuous communication with members of the cabinet and other university officials, so we can coordinate our efforts and deal with unexpected problems as they occur.  The regularly scheduled planning and review meetings that we hold are designed to maximize efficiency and to create protocols that can help avoid complications in the operations of our various administrative systems. When I’m not physically on the campus, I’m working to reach our institutional goals and objectives out of our D.C. office.

How does the Romanian government’s regulation of higher education differ from the U.S. government’s? While I admit that I’m still learning some of the intricacies of the way the Romanian government oversees its higher education system, the big difference in policy is easy to identify — private institutions, such as Danubius, are not eligible to receive funding from the government. That means we are continuously trying to stabilize our existing revenue streams and to identify new ones so that we can remain on solid financial footing.  For instance, we’re now introducing the concept of alumni giving to the university community, and we are encouraging Danubius graduates to donate to their alma mater so that others can receive the same high-quality educational experience that
they enjoyed.

What are some of the diversity, equity, and inclusion issues that affect students and faculty in Romania? How do these compare with those in the U.S.? I imagine that diversity, equity, and inclusion issues exist, to some degree and fashion, in every country in the world. However, I haven’t seen the stark inequities in treatment and opportunities that are systemic and rooted in racial and ethnic differences in the U.S. at play in Romania. Personal and group identities appear to be somewhat fluid there, even across national boundary lines.

For example, from my [Galati] apartment window I can see the borders of both Moldova and Ukraine, and my colleagues tell me that in both countries, there are people of Romanian descent. They are, of course, citizens of the countries in which they reside, but there are also communities of people whose forebearers come from both of those nations who now live in Romania. I don’t know that what appears to be a phenomenon of comfortable cross-national and intergroup engagement exists in other European countries beyond Romania, but on the Danubius campus as well as other Romanian universities that I’ve had the opportunity to visit, the spirit of inclusion seems to be part of the institutional culture.

At the same time, I’m aware that in Romania there are underrepresented groups among the university populations – probably most notably the Roma.

I hope we will find ways to explore why and how various groups become marginalized and excluded in different societies and to make those analyses part of the Danubius educational experience. From my standpoint, this is an ethical imperative that we should assume as educators in whatever part of the world we happen to occupy, and hopefully this scrutiny will ultimately result in more equitable social policy as our graduates go forward to take their places and become leaders in their chosen fields.

What unique experiences as an African American member of the academy do you bring to your current role? I feel very fortunate to have had a wide variety of academic and organizational experiences in different geographic settings during my career, and I have gained something from each of them. I’ve held faculty and administrative positions across the gamut of U.S. higher education institutions, ranging from an open-access community college to prestigious liberal arts colleges to highly selective public and private universities in urban, suburban, and rural settings. At one time or another, I have served as a chief academic officer, a chief student affairs officer, and a chief diversity officer at these institutions, and my research and scholarship have resulted in tenured, full-professor appointments at four research universities. As vice president at the American Council on Education (ACE), I was able to bring national attention to issues of diversity and equity in the higher education community, and I was subsequently elected as the founding president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education.

As I moved around and through the academic vortex, I didn’t hesitate to raise concerns and questions about the manifestation of institutional racism within the higher education community, and this course of action seemed to me to be both necessary and appropriate. So, I was somewhat surprised when, upon my acceptance of the position at ACE, a higher education publication wrote a feature story about the appointment using the headline “From Agitator to Advocate.”  I presume the term “agitator” was meant to be interpreted in a complimentary manner, and I certainly will bring to Danubius an expectation of civic engagement and thoughtful activism. 

Pusca and Harvey celebrate the inauguration of the Danubius University Sports Club alongside Cosoreanu Marius, the club’s president (right)

What you would like leaders of U.S. colleges and universities to know about Danubius University and the cross-educational opportunities between the two countries? The tagline at the bottom of our institutional stationery reads, “An international university that bridges the West and the East,” and that is how we want the university to be identified as we move forward. Danubius is strategically located, both geographically and philosophically, as an intellectual connection point between the two spheres.   

Other pieces of stationery carry a different message that reads, “Knowledge has no boundaries, communication has no borders, understanding has no limits.” Here again, we are expressing our perspective that the arbitrary, and often artificial, constraints on personal and institutional interactions should be removed so that both students and academicians can enhance and maximize their learning opportunities and professional development experiences through transnational deliberations and planned engagements. 

At Danubius, we intend to develop a set of potential connecting experiences, ranging in length from one week to one year, that will provide interested parties with growth opportunities that will enhance their personal and intellectual well-being.  To that end, over the course of the next year we will be seeking to establish mutually beneficial agreements, relations, and partnerships with American colleges and universities as well as other higher education organizations. 

Although Romania does not have a high level of recognition in the U.S., it is not only a fascinating, friendly nation with a rich history and culture, it is also a member of the European Union and an American ally that is politically stable, physically safe, and financially affordable. Part of the Danubius University mission is to bring more Americans to Romania and, in turn, to provide Romanian students and academicians with opportunities to visit and explore America.

What are your short- and long-term goals for the university? Our first step is to host an international conference September 13–16 at the Danubius campus in Galati. The opening plenary speaker, Dr. Ronald Crutcher, Chair of the Board of ACE, has described this as being “an historic event.”  It will celebrate the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership for the 21st Century Between Romania and the United States of America, and the conference theme is “Two Democratic Societies in Transition: Exploring the Dynamics of a Post-Covid World.” The program lineup features prominent academicians and policy makers from both Romania and the U.S. who will examine significant political, social, and economic issues facing the two allied nations as the world emerges from the pandemic.

With its world-class collection of presenters and co-sponsors, this conference will position Danubius University for future academic endeavors with institutional partners in America and around the world in addition to further enhancing its international standing and reputation. We hope that administrators and educators from the U.S. will join us at this momentous event so we can explore the incredible opportunities for both countries.

Mariah Bohanon is the senior editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.

For more information on the upcoming conference “Two Democratic Societies in Transition: Exploring the Dynamics of a Post-Covid World,” visit conferences.univ-danubius.ro/index.php/TDST/TDS2021 or email Dr. Harvey at william.harvey@univ-danubius.ro.

This article was published in our September 2021 issue.