Due to inclement weather, UVa-Wise will close at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, March 4.

Campus and community mourn the passing of Chancellor David J. Prior

The University of Virginia’s College at Wise campus is in mourning following the unexpected death of David J. Prior, the college’s seventh chancellor.

 Mr. Prior, 68, passed away on Feb. 2. He is survived by his wife, Merry Lu, and adult children, Andrea and her husband, Tom Martin and son Christopher and his wife, Sarah.

“Marvin and I are deeply saddened by the death of our friend and associate Chancellor Prior,” said Marcia Adams-Gilliam, chair of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise Board.  “His many contributions to our college, our region and our students will continue to impact the campus for years to come. Our thoughts and prayers are with Merry Lu and their children.”

The college community received word of his death early this morning. After family members were notified, the college’s senior staff members were informed so they could brief their staff and faculty members in person. 

 “David Prior was a champion for the College at Wise, and he worked tirelessly to spread the culture of education throughout Southwest Virginia and the Commonwealth," said Marvin Gilliam, a member of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors. "He was a tireless advocate of STEM initiatives at the College, and this legacy will have a tremendous impact on the region and its economic development efforts well into the future." 

During his seven years as Chancellor, UVa-Wise experienced remarkable growth in both student enrollment and the campus in general. It was during his administration that UVa-Wise reached an important milestone as it celebrated the success of its “Fulfilling the Dream” campaign. During the seven-year campaign, the college exceeded its goal of $50 million.

He was at the college’s helm during construction of many buildings, including the Hunter J. Smith Dining Commons, the Gilliam Center for the Arts and two residence halls, as well as the renovation of the Leonard W. Sandridge Science Center. Mr. Prior was extremely proud of the construction of the college’s $30 million Convocation Center, a facility that was funded by the Virginia General Assembly and gave Southwest Virginia its first major venue for hosting conventions, sporting competitions, concerts and other events.

“David Prior was a gifted administrator and scientist, and he cared deeply about U.Va.'s College at Wise and the people of his community, “ said Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia. “With his wife, Merry Lu, he worked hard to build relationships with students, alumni, donors and elected officials. The beautiful new buildings at the college are merely the most visible signs of his success. I very much enjoyed working with him, and I had the opportunity to see how well he represented the College and the region with our Board of Visitors and in Richmond. We will miss David very much, and I am grateful for his life and his example."


Mr. Prior began his work at UVa-Wise in September 2005 when John T. Casteen was president of the University. It was Mr. Casteen who appointed Mr. Prior.


“David seemed to have been prepared from birth to lead and love the College at Wise and the people and landscape of Southwest Virginia,” Mr. Casteen, president emeritus, University of Virginia, said Thursday. “Tireless, wise and always focused on whatever would be best for the college, he brought its great promise to maturity. With his wife, Merry Lu, he saw life in Lila Vicars Smith House as joyous work. The evolving faces of the campus -- its promising students and busy staff and faculty -- are his legacy as surely as fine new buildings and sound financials are. He led the College a long step along the road toward its future."


Helen Dragas, rector of the University of Virginia, said Mr. Prior would be greatly missed. "The Board of Visitors and the University community mourn the loss of an extraordinarily gifted leader and extend our condolences to Chancellor Prior’s family,” she said. “His passion and energy for the College at Wise, its students and faculty, were boundless. Deeply dedicated to elevating this important region of the Commonwealth, he personified the University’s goal, linking the resources of the College at Wise to drive economic development. We will miss Chancellor Prior enormously." 

Mr. Prior earned a Ph.D. in neurophysiology from the University of Virginia in 1972. Before that, he earned an A.B. in biology from Olivet College in Michigan in 1965 and a master's in animal physiology and biochemistry from Central Michigan University in 1968.  He was also a post-doctoral fellow in neurobiology at Princeton University from 1972 to 1973.

He began his teaching career in 1973 at the University of Kentucky, where he eventually held dual full professorships in biological sciences and physiology and biophysics. He left in 1987 to become chairman of the Department of Biology at Northern Arizona University and was named dean of the College of Arts and Sciences there in 1992. He served as dean of the graduate school of Northern Michigan University.

For seven years, he served as a provost in the University of Wisconsin system.

As a researcher, he had more than 20 years of continuous funding and is credited with more than 100 research publications, symposium presentations, review articles and book chapters.

Mr. Prior began his service with the College on September 1, 2005, and was inaugurated on April 11, 2006, as its seventh chancellor.