Celebrating Black History: Dr. Phail Wynn, Jr., first African American NC community college president, was a pioneer at Durham Tech

Celebrating Black History: Dr. Phail Wynn, Jr., first African American NC community college president, was a pioneer at Durham Tech

Friday, February 17, 2023 - 1:01pm

In celebration of Black History Month, the North Carolina Community College System is republishing in full a 2022 profile of Dr. Phail Wynn, Jr., the first African American North Carolina community college president and a pioneer in higher education as president of Durham Technical Community College. 

60 for 60: Dr. Phail Wynn, Jr. made history as first African American community college president in North Carolina, served Durham Tech for 30 years 

By: Desiree Allison-Towson 

Mar 07, 2022 

In celebration of Durham Technical Community College’s 60th anniversary, the College is publishing 60 for 60 – a storytelling campaign that highlights the people, places, and events that have progressed and shaped the College’s six decades of impact. To view more 60 for 60 stories, visit www.durhamtech.edu/60for60.  

The wise words of Dr. Phail Wynn, Jr. filled the DPAC auditorium during Durham Tech’s 2018 commencement ceremony.   

“Each of you has vast amounts of untapped potential that has not been discovered or has not been developed simply because the circumstances of your life have never called them forth,” said Wynn, the third president of Durham Tech. “You have barely scratched the surface of your deep reservoir of hidden talent. Use your knowledge and skills wisely, to the benefit and betterment of your community and of society as a whole.”  

His passion for higher education was a constant in his life.   

Wynn was born in 1948 in Wewoka, Oklahoma and earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma. Later he attended North Carolina State University where he earned his master's and doctorate degree.   

Wynn also joined the United States Army and served with the 82nd Airborne Division based out of Fort Bragg. He was later assigned to former John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and served a one-year combat tour in Vietnam.  

After leaving the military, Wynn began his journey at Durham Tech as Assistant to the President in 1977.    

In 1978 he was promoted to Vice President of Support Services and in May 1980, he was appointed Interim President and named President that fall.    

Wynn was the first African American community college president in North Carolina and his leadership shifted the College in significant ways. He strived to make college more accessible and he elevated Durham Tech with new initiatives and opportunities.    

Under Wynn’s leadership, Durham Tech became one of the first colleges to offer telecourses and weekend classes – ensuring students could access course offerings at convenient times for their schedule.   

He helped expand Durham Tech’s with the development of the Northern Durham Center and Small Business Center in downtown Durham.   

person pointing at large mapWhen Durham Tech first entered Orange County, courses were offered at various locations throughout the county, but Wynn wanted the College to have their own location in Orange County. Phail made a request to the North Carolina Department of Community Colleges to establish a permanent campus in August 2004, and in 2005 the plans were approved.    

High-technology courses were also introduced under his leadership such as microelectronic instructions for General Electric, semiconductor technology, robotics, computer-aided drafting, computer graphics, and computer numerical control machine technology.  

Wynn’s other accolades include ensuring Durham Tech was an accredited institution, increasing enrollment and the College’s course offerings, providing customized training programs for businesses in the Research Triangle Park, developing the University Transfer Program, establishing the Middle College High School, and transitioning Durham Technical Institute into a community college.   

Dr. Bill Ingram, Durham Tech’s fourth president, said Wynn’s impact was felt far and wide in the community.  

“One of his favorite terms was ‘force multiplier,’ which describes a technology or set of conditions that enables a unit to accomplish more than it could under normal circumstances. When I think of Phail, I think of him as a ‘force multiplier.’  I think of the single mother who got her GED at Durham Tech, and because of that GED was able to find a job. And in finding a job, she was able to house and clothe her children. This was his impact on the community,” Ingram said. “It spread over Durham like the ripples on a pond caused by a single pebble.”   

Mary Lou Rollins, former director of the Durham Tech Foundation and executive assistant to the president, described Wynn as a true renaissance man.  

“He was knowledgeable on every subject imaginable. He was also charismatic, funny, and generous,” she said.  

John Atkins, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer at O’Brien Atkins, said Wynn was the right person at the right time for Durham Tech.  

“He was energetic, brought insight to what needed to be accomplished for success, and quickly educated himself on the Durham community – its movers and shakers, its politics and its culture, melding the community into the fabric of the College. He stayed focused on addressing student needs and promoting their success,” Atkins said. “Durham Tech is what it is today because of the solid foundation Phail Wynn built.”   

Wynn passed away in July 2018. He was 70. He left his mark at Durham Tech and the Durham community.  

To honor his memory as Durham Tech’s third President and the legacy of service on the North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation Board, Dr. Phail Wynn, Jr. Library Endowment was created with the support from the North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation through a 2019 Impact Award. This endowment provides funds to build the College’s collection with books, media, and other materials that reflect the academic interests and societal priorities held by Dr. Wynn.   

Two Endowments were also created at Durham Tech to honor Wynn. Dr. Phail Wynn, Jr. SunTrust Foundation Scholarship was created in 2007 to honor Dr. Wynn’s retirement as President of the College. The purpose of this scholarship is to provide funds for male students who are active participants in Visions Leadership Initiate and who have graduated from a public high school in Durham or Orange counties or Durham Tech’s AHS/GED programs.  

The Wynn RTI International Scholarship was created in 2018 to assist students in Early Childhood Education with tuition, fees, and books.   

person pointing at large map
Dr. Phail Wynn, Jr.