Students and employees of St. Augustine’s University laid roses in front of President Irving McPhail’s residence Friday morning after learning he had died the night before as a result of COVID-19.
The university community was surprised to learn of McPhail’s passing. After taking over as president on July 15, he quickly became a familiar face on campus until mid-September, when he learned he had been exposed to someone with COVID-19. and quietly went into quarantine, according to James Perry, a retired Florida Supreme Court justice and chair of St. Augustine’s Board of Trustees.
A letter went out via university email on Oct. 12 under the board’s letterhead that said McPhail was “recovering from COVID-19. He is receiving expert care and treatment at a local hospital.
“It is important to note that he did not contract the virus in the SAU community. We continue to take all precautions to ensure that our SAU community remains safe,” the letter said.
It went on to say, “President McPhail has been a strong proponent of face coverings and social distancing. He has regularly communicated with the campus community about SAU’s COVID-19 protocols and expectations, through both formal and informal channels.”
The letter asked that all in the university community adhere to the practices intended to prevent the spread of illness. It said the university was working with Wake County health officials and adhering to protocols on cleaning and contact tracing.
Remote convocation speech
McPhail was the keynote speaker at St. Aug’s annual fall convocation held on Sept. 17. But instead of attending in person at the university chapel, he pre-recorded his address, which was played during the event. A handful of people attended in person, but most watched it online.
Perry said McPhail decided to give the speech remotely because he knew then he had been exposed to someone with the virus. At the time, however, McPhail did not know whether he had COVID-19 himself, Perry said.
After he tested positive and began to show symptoms, McPhail stayed home and took over-the-counter medicines, Perry said. But the weekend of Oct. 3, he had trouble breathing and was taken by ambulance to WakeMed. While there, Perry said, McPhail improved some and then got worse. He was never able to return home, Perry said, and died at the hospital.
Irving Pressley McPhail was named the university’s 12th leader after a national search, with officials highlighting his experience in higher education, urban public school administration and work in the non-profit sector. He also was known for highlighting contributions made by minorities in the STEM field. McPhail, a New York City native, also was founder and chief strategy officer at the McPhail Group LLC.
He was a professor of practice at the Dr. John E. Roueche Community College Leadership Center at Kansas State University. His work focused on connecting “practice, policy, and research in language, literacy, and culture; postsecondary student success; underrepresented minorities in STEM education and careers; and community college leadership,” according to SAU.