There isn’t a university within 20 miles of Bedford.
But for the past 40 years, the city has been the heart of Virginia’s private college system.
Since 1983, from the law firm founded by his father, Robert Lambeth Jr. has chaired the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia, or CICV, a nonprofit organization representing 27 accredited nonprofit independent colleges and universities in Virginia. , from Appalachian School of Law and Emory & Henry to George Washington University and everywhere in between. Since taking over CICV from the organization’s founder, Lambeth, 73, has been determined to bring together the individual Commonwealth college resources, where available, to keep them affordable and accessible to Virginians of all backgrounds.
So much so — and surprisingly to some — that Virginia’s private colleges, not their public, community-based counterparts, actually educate a higher percentage of underrepresented populations, according to the Virginia State Board of Higher Education. .
A press release announcing Lambeth’s retirement touts his key achievements:
- A $4,500 tuition assistance scholarship program for the 20,000 students attending private colleges in Virginia in 2022-23 ($5,000 the following year). Over 300,000 students have been helped since the program was launched.
- An innovative self-insured health insurance program called Virginia Private Colleges Benefits Consortium (VPCBC) that covers 3,300 CICV employees, or 6,100 Virginians in total, and provides financial stability for CICV institutions.
- A first-of-its-kind program in the United States that consolidated individual college pension plans into a single “Multiple Employer Plan,” or MEP, that not only reduced administrative costs, but, with $1 billion in ‘assets, enabled CICV to hire a financial company to do face-to-face consultations for all employees.
- A 2017 solar initiative, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sunshot Solar Grant Program, that will one day reduce independent colleges’ energy bills and carbon footprint.
But its proudest achievement is the lifelong, life-changing education that independent colleges provide for families, especially those considered “underrepresented”: non-white, low-income, and first-generation.
“Sixty-nine percent of our students come from underrepresented groups,” says Lambeth. “In a four-year public institution, it’s 55%. If you look at Federal Pell Grant eligibility, 45% of private college students are eligible, but only 26% of public students and 30% of community college students. This is a shocking number for many people. We have admitted, worked with, and graduated many low-income and first-generation students. It is gratifying for the Commonwealth and for Southwest and Southside. And we will continue to work on that.
Dr. David Johns, president of Ferrum College and chairman of the CICV board, said in a statement that Lambeth has been “a tireless champion of Virginia’s independent colleges for decades. In his role, Robert worked with legislators from all sides of the aisle to secure the funding needed to make student dreams come true. … We are stronger and wiser thanks to Robert’s advice and friendship.
On the legislator side, State Senator Steve Newman agreed, “As a legislator, I appreciate Robert’s ability to work with everyone, regardless of their party affiliation or point of view. The Board of Independent Colleges of Virginia has been well served by the leadership of Robert Lambeth and he will be sorely missed.
The relationships with the 120 university presidents and countless legislators he has worked with over the decades are what Lambeth will miss most. “One of the best things is that I work with really nice people. Generally speaking, Virginia has a good state government, and there’s never been a time when I wanted to work anywhere else. I just took it from year to year, the presidents have treated me very well and I’m still here.
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Lambeth learned firsthand the benefits of a Virginia independent as an undergraduate at Randolph Macon College.
“It was close personal attention,” he said. “I was a political science student and had a close relationship with my professors, sitting around a class with 15 students debating the future of the world. I had the opportunity to do things that I never thought I could do. I was encouraged to make the debate team. I was interested in journalism even though I had never participated in it, and I ended up becoming editor of the school newspaper. Opportunities to do things in small classes are the niche of private institutions that have had a major impact on my life.
His family’s political legacy also touched him.
His grandfather, SS Lambeth Jr., was a lawyer who moved to Bedford in 1906 and was elected to both the House of Delegates and the Virginia Senate. His father, Bolling Lambeth, began his practice of law in 1940, served as a Commonwealth Solicitor for Bedford County, and in 1964 purchased the building which now houses CICV and Lambeth Law Firm Limited. Bolling also founded the Roanoke River Basin Association, which was responsible for creating Smith Mountain Lake.
All these experiences led to his introduction to the CICV.
While in grad school at the University of Virginia, Lambeth got a part-time job from Don Holden, the former CEO of Newport News Shipbuilding, who had helped raise money for some private colleges. Holden believed that independent schools in Virginia could be strengthened if they pooled some resources, and so founded the CICV in the basement of his Charlottesville home.
Lambeth’s first job was to stick pins on a state map showing where the college trustees lived. His work at the CICV became much more complex years later, after graduating from the University of Richmond Law School and returning to Bedford as a third-generation lawyer.
Holden sold him the position of president, assuring him that it was a part-time job he could do in addition to his law practice. This turned out to be a short-term prospect.
Alongside the TAG, VPCBC and retirement programs, Lambeth over the years helped the 27 university presidents, who were essentially its bosses, navigate an increasingly difficult market.
Its tuition-dependent constituents must compete with taxpayer-subsidized public universities. Declining demographics make this pool of available students even rarer. Additionally, costs and demand for services – especially in the areas of technology, mental health resources and campus safety – are increasing exponentially.
“When I was in college, there was an officer, a car, and no blue lights,” he explained. “The whole attitude of higher education is changing. It is a very difficult undertaking, but we are hanging on.
His latest initiative — perhaps not the last since his board asked him to stay on during the search process for a new president — involves his colleges collaborating on information technology needs and maintenance. .
“It’s a real challenge for small colleges to provide all the IT functions on their own. So we just started looking if there are ways to collaborate on IT to share some of the IT challenges. We want to keep our administrative costs as low as possible and minimize our tuition fee increases.
According to him, the cultural mindset of a higher education is one of the biggest challenges facing Southwest and Southern Virginia. Many first-generation students focus solely on an end goal that accompanies a college degree rather than the versatile knowledge, critical thinking, and writing skills developed by an extensive liberal arts program.
“How often will young people have to change jobs? he is asking himself. “It’s hard to explain this to families who have never experienced this.”
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Lambeth is retiring as the longest-serving president of a consortium of private colleges in the United States. “I am the oldest person,” he says.
From his home in Forest, he plans to become more involved in non-profit organizations that are dear to him, such as his alma mater Randolph Macon, member of the CICV where he sits on the board of directors, and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation which promotes conservation easements.
He will support the work of his wife Lynn Bebee as a board member of Poplar Forest, the Bedford County retirement home of Thomas Jefferson.
And he will also spend more time with his beloved lamas: “The best thing about lamas is that they don’t talk about government policy or higher education. They are good company.