Irving McPhail, new president of St. Augustine’s University, dies of COVID-19

Several people associated with the HBCU gathered outside his residence to pay their respects to the educator

Dr. Irving P. McPhail, who took over as president of St. Augustine’s University this summer, died earlier this month just days after testing positive for coronavirus. He was 71.

McPhail became the 12th president of St. Augustine’s on July 15, succeeding Dr. Everett Ward as head of the private historically black college in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Several students and faculty members of the school have gathered outside McPhail’s residence to honor the short-lived president, local newspaper The News & Observer reports.

Dr. Irving P. McPhail
Dr. Irving P. McPhail

In September, McPhail went into self-quarantine after being exposed to someone with coronavirus, the fast-spreading novel virus that causes the COVID-19 disease that been attributed to more than 1 million deaths around the globe in less than a year. This prompted him to give his Sept. 17 SAU fall convocation via a pre-recorded message, according to Richmond Free Press.

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McPhail first reported experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 on the weekend of Oct. 3 and was later taken to WakeMed Health and Hospitals, a health-care system in the capital area. An email from the university was sent out on Oct 12 saying that McPhail was “recovering” after “receiving expert care and treatment at a local hospital.”

The letter continued by reiterating that McPhail did not come into contact with COVID-19 while he was on the SAU campus and that he been taking every precaution whenever on campus.

“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 message said.

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James Perry, the chair of St. Augustine’s board of trustees, says McPhail stayed home and took over-the-counter medicine in the early stages of his quarantine, unaware if he had contracted the virus at the time. The late president was hospitalized after having trouble breathing.

Perry said that McPhail initially showed signs of improving health during his hospital stay, but his condition worsened as time went on.

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St. Augustine’s University President Irving McPhail dies of covid-19 complications

McPhail tested positive while still mostly asymptomatic, Perry said. But about two weeks ago, McPhail had difficulty breathing and was taken to the emergency room. His condition seemed to be improving while he was hospitalized, but about three days ago, he took a turn for the worse, Perry said. He died Thursday night.

“We were very hopeful and prayerful,” Perry said, “But that’s the nature of this pandemic. Nobody knows what it’s going to do.”

McPhail was an inspiration to the students, Perry said. “He had the Ivy League background — but he didn’t have the Ivy League arrogance.” McPhail was a first-generation college student, born and raised in Harlem, Perry said. “Our students could relate.

“He was a good person,” Perry said. “That’s my ultimate compliment.”

McPhail earned his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, his master’s degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. He went on to hold numerous leadership roles in education and nonprofit organizations, including serving as the founding chancellor of the Community College of Baltimore County.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) mourned McPhail’s death with a statement on social media.

The university plans a memorial on campus Oct. 27, with spacing and other safeguards, and a virtual event as well.

The News & Observer reported that people gathered in the rain Friday for a prayer and to leave long-stemmed roses outside of McPhail’s house on campus. He told the outlet in August, as students were returning for the semester, that he ended every day driving around campus, checking on whether students were following public-health guidelines, and rolling down his window to remind them to stay safe.

The school has only had a couple of positive virus tests among students, Perry said.

He said McPhail was a stickler for following health protocols, and made clear that anyone who didn’t comply would be sent home. Perry said St. Augustine’s students, like many at HBCUs, didn’t have the privilege to feel immune from the virus, or invulnerable.

“Our kids know it’s real,” he said.

McPhail “was very careful in what he did,” Perry said. “Life is tenuous — very tenuous.”

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