Alfred Rollins is seated in a comfortable corner chair in his den, with a view of Westover Avenue in West Ghent. On his side table is a stack of books that includes a new CIA espionage thriller. One of his two cats, Oedipuss, makes a quick move, leaping onto his lap while he talks with a visitor.
|Alfred Rollins: "No, it's all going for women."|
By Paul Clancy
Rollins is 91 now, at a reflective point in a long and eventful life that included service as a bomber pilot during World War II and, at a time of sweeping change, nine years as president of Old Dominion University.
The two experiences were closely related. Had he not served in the Air Force during the war, he would not have gone back to college under the GI Bill, perhaps ending up selling insurance in Hartford where he grew up. Instead he got his doctorate in American history from Harvard and went on to a distinguished career in education.
It was a long road, from upstate New York, where he taught, to the University of Vermont and then Norfolk, where on July 1, 1976 he became ODU’s third president.
It was a university by then, but in name only, he says. There were just a few thousand students, the overwhelming majority day students. There were a handful of separate colleges, like Education and Arts and Sciences, and a main quadrangle.
But ODU, like many other southern universities, was mostly segregated, with only a few black students and faculty members, while across town, Norfolk State University was almost entirely black.
“During the interviews I had with the search committee, I remember saying to them I would not be involved in any university which wasn’t racially integrated,” he said. “One of the people on the search committee laughed and said, ‘Well that’s been done. We are racially integrated by law.’”
He made a solemn commitment to recruit black students and faculty.
“But there was something else going on that was probably in the long run more important,” he says, “and that was this was a period when large numbers of young people were graduating from high school and wanted to go on to college, and so both of the institutions, Norfolk State and Old Dominion, were tapping into an open market of young people who wanted to go to college but couldn’t afford to go away.
“And we were essentially saying we can provide you with a good college education in an accredited institution, everything you need to have about a college except a dormitory. I felt very good about being involved with that kind of institution and that kind of objective. It was a matter of timing perhaps: if it had been a few years earlier, where Old Dominion was thought of as a white institution I wouldn’t have come down here. I wouldn’t have been involved.”
There was another revolution in the works, the rise in women’s studies and women’s athletics. It was just a few years after passage of Title IV, the law that gives women’s sports equal footing on campuses. And Rollins was pushing hard for gender equality.
“When it came time to raise the fees for athletics,” he says, “the Athletic Department came up with the concept that a certain percentage of this would go for women, a certain percentage to men, I was able to say, no, this raise goes entirely to women’s programs. And so, women’s basketball got a real boost forward. . . I was in a position that I could say, no, it’s all going for women – because I say so.”
Rollins could sit back and watch it happen.
Led by superstar Nancy Lieberman, the Lady Monarchs captured back-to-back national basketball championships in 1979 and 1980, compiling an astonishing 72-2 record over two years. Lieberman would later be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The cast also included All-American Inge Nissen and Anne Donovan, who became a three-time All-American and 1983 Naismith National Player of the Year.
Rollins retired in 1985, but continued for several years to teach history. He found time to write short stories, especially about his wartime experiences, to root for ODU basketball teams, and just the other day, to reflect on his role in the school’s history.