[ skip to content ]

News @ ODU

Former ODU President Alfred Rollins Dies

Rollins Memorial Invite
alfred-rollins-3Alfred Rollins

Alfred B. Rollins Jr., a historian who served as Old Dominion University's third president from 1976-85, died Wednesday in Norfolk. He was 91.

Rollins directed Old Dominion through its transition from a regional college to a major research university, skillfully bringing about major growth in state and private funding, facilitating racial integration, expanding student services, establishing an honors program and a broader graduate education mission, and putting new focus on women's athletics.

Rollins was an accomplished writer of scholarly books and articles, as well as fiction. His best known work as a historian was the book "Roosevelt and Howe."

"We have lost one of our university's great leaders," said university President John R. Broderick. "He was a man of great vision, intelligence and soft-spoken strength. I will remember him - a fellow Connecticut native - as a kind and decent man who always had time for people. I have tried to emulate that in the way I conduct myself. Two decades ago when I was just starting out at this university, he was very gracious and very helpful to me. I'm sure a lot of administrators, faculty members and alumni can say the same thing about him."

Rollins, the son of a minister, earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Between degrees he was a World War II bomber pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and he received the distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with four clusters for service in the war. He attained the rank of first lieutenant.

He said in an ODU oral history interview in 1999 that he might have returned from the war and settled down as an insurance agent had it not been for the opportunity provided by the GI Bill. After receiving his master's from Wesleyan, he earned a doctorate in history from Harvard University in 1953. He taught at the State University of New York, New Paltz, and at the University of Vermont, and he was a vice president at Vermont when he was chosen in 1976 to be president of ODU. After leaving the presidency in 1985, he taught history at the university for six years before retiring.

His presidency followed those of Lewis W. Webb Jr. (Norfolk Division, William and Mary, 1946-62, and Old Dominion College, 1962-69) and James L. Bugg Jr. (1969-1976).

"One of the great things about my coming here was that I could build on a very, very solid base that Lewis Webb and Jim Bugg had built," Rollins said in the 1999 oral history. "The two of them had done an extraordinary job of building an institution."

Throughout his tenure as president, Rollins demonstrated his strong commitment to affirmative action. Under his leadership, the Women's Studies program and the Women's Center were established, and the university gave greater support to women's athletics. "I take a lot of personal pride in helping to get the women's programs off the ground, particularly women's basketball. That's one of my biggest prides," he said in the oral history. The Lady Monarchs would win national basketball championships in 1979, 1980 and 1985.

Under his leadership at ODU, support services were established for international, minority and handicapped students, and the university made great strides in recruiting and retaining minority faculty and students.

Rollins firmly established the university's significance to the region and the state by forging closer relationships with NASA, the U.S. Navy, Norfolk State University and Eastern Virginia Medical School. It was during his presidency that the university joined with other schools to form the Southeastern University Research Association to help bring the $300 million Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility to Newport News.

In the classroom at ODU, Rollins taught a variety of courses in American history, including large lecture sections of the General Education American History class.

With his characteristic humility, Rollins said in an ODU Alumnews interview when he retired, "I have liked the excitement of it.This is a kind of job that no one should take unless he or she enjoys the process, because, at any given time, the sense of achievement is very fuzzy and the sense of failure is very dramatic and clear. You see all the things that are wrong and you can never do the job well enough. It's very difficult to put your hand on something and say, 'I did this' or 'I really honestly can take credit for that.'"

Rollins credited Dana Burnett, the ODU professor of education who was dean of student affairs and vice president for student affairs during the Rollins presidency, with many of the student services initiatives of those years. But Burnett said Thursday that it was Rollins who "was a student's president."

Burnett added, "His leadership for the development of women's athletics, and support for gender and racial equality has been widely recognized. What has not been publicly acknowledged as much is his insistence that our campus provide opportunities for out-of-class learning and support for students. When he arrived on campus, we had no counseling center, no health center and only a modest student activities program. Within just a few years, and with his caring leadership, the foundation had been laid for the essential student support services and student life programs that exist on our campus today."

Rollins was also known as a campus environmentalist, Burnett remembers. "He had a rule that no tree was to be cut down without his permission. One of his favorite places on the campus was the Williamsburg Lawn. He loved the mature trees that grace the area. A memorial for Faith Rollins, his spouse who died during Al's term as president, is located just outside the main entrance to Rollins Hall. An inscription on the memorial's marker identifies the area as 'The Quiet Place.'"

Charles O. Burgess, who served as provost and vice president for academic affairs during the Rollins years, and later as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, said, "Al Rollins was not only a classy person in himself, but also was the president who consolidated and strengthened the university based on the teaching tradition of the Lewis Webb years and the firm establishment of university status under Jim Bugg. Al brought a national view, a commitment to the arts and to affirmative action, and important new program initiatives, all with a rich sense of humor. He will be remembered as one of our great presidents."

Survivors include his wife, Helen Anrod Jones of Norfolk, who is a professional photographer. His wife when he came to ODU, Faith Prior Rollins, a consumer economist, died of cancer in 1979. Rollins' first wife, Ernestine McMullin, died in 1972, also of cancer.

Other survivors incllude three children from his first marriage, John D. Rollins of Cheshire, Conn., (and wife, Debbie); James S. Rollins of
Portsmouth, N.H. (and wife, Cynthia Van Zandt); and Nancy J. Rowell of Highgate, Vt. (and husband, Willard), as well as five grandchildren and a sister, Marjorie Myer of Florence, Ky.

Rollins was active in organizations outside of ODU. He served as chairman of the Tidewater Consortium for Continuing Education and of the Eastern Virginia Health Education Consortium. He was a board member of the Norfolk Symphony, Virginia Opera Association, Virginia Orchestra Group, Urban League of Tidewater and the Greater Norfolk Corporation.

Here are some specific ODU accomplishments during the Rollins presidency:

When he arrived, only two doctoral programs (engineering and oceanography); when he left, 11 Ph.D. programs and 37 master's programs.

When he took office, ODU was ranked 14th in funding throughout the state. That improved to 7th during his administration.

From 1979 to 1984, ODU's budget increased by nearly $28 million. Private giving increased, as did the revenues from university services. Together, these sources grew by 120 percent to $33 million.

Counseling center, health center, multicultural center, women's center, and writing center were created.

Special support services were established for international students, handicapped students and minority students.

Significant construction and renovations were completed, including Mills Godwin Jr. Building, Webb Center addition, Powhatan Apartments and Whitehurst Hall.

ODU became a national leader in the establishment and development of women's sports.

Through the establishment of the Riverview Theater, ODU Ballet, and the University Gallery, all off-campus facilities, ODU brought its arts programs closer to the community.