By Tonya Jameson
For the last couple of years, it looked as though Johnson C. Smith University could become another HBCU likely to succumb to financial woes, but new president Clarence Armbrister is working hard to write a new narrative for the university.
Armbrister took over as the 14th president of JCSU in January. Getting the historically Black university off probation for accreditation is his first priority. Then he will focus on his four Rs of success, but first the probation.
“There’s nothing more important than trying to make sure that we do everything we can to remove ourselves from probation,” Armbrister said. “That’s what we’ve been working toward.”
In fact, the university is poised to have consecutive years of financial success, he said.
Armbrister succeeded Ronald Carter, who stepped down in December. He is a Miami native with more than 35 years of experience in public finance and executive experience in education and government, ranging from city treasurer for Philadelphia in the ‘90s to executive vice president and chief operating officer at Temple University. He most recently served as president of Girard College, an independent, college preparatory, five-day boarding school for academically capable students from economically disadvantaged families from the Philadelphia region.
Armbrister’s natural inclination when he began at JCSU was to assess, assess, assess. He wasn’t just looking at the books to get JCSU back on sound financial footing, but also the academic programs and the university’s place in the Charlotte community.
He said the keys to the university’s success are resources, recruitment, retention and rigor.
“If we can move the needle significantly on those four Rs, then we can be an institution that will be around thriving, not just surviving, in the next 152 years,” he said. The university celebrated it 150th anniversary in 2017.
He wants the school to have the resources to recruit and retain students, and provide them with a rigorous education that prepares them for the jobs of the future. This year, JCSU had its largest entering class, with more than 400 students, including freshman and transfer students starting at the university in fall 2018. He called the large entering class a result of the university’s secret sauce – an admissions process that looks beyond academic standards to assess a student’s chances for success.
“We nurture them and provide them with the kind of support they need,” he said.
When it comes to academics, Armbrister wants to grow the university’s success beyond the STEM curriculum that typically garners recognition. The masters of social work program is a rising star at the university and will get the school’s targeted investments, he said.
“We’re offering something the region needs,” he said.
Armbrister is intent on creating graduates who can impact the Charlotte community and beyond. When he met with city leaders in 2017, the uprising following Keith Lamont Scott’s shooting death was still fresh. Leaders were focused on the issues highlighted in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force Leading On Opportunity report. Armbrister wants JCSU to play a role in helping Charlotte address the issue of economic mobility, but he said the university will need support from city leaders to make an impact.
“There is no institution in this region better prepared to help move the needle on that,” he said. “If they are truly interested in moving that needle, then they would help.”
Armbrister’s arrival not only ushers in hope for a new financial era for the university, but there’s also excitement that the university has a first lady. The university hasn’t had one in 25 years.
Armbrister’s wife, Denise, is senior vice president of Wells Fargo
Corporation and executive director of the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation and the Wells Fargo Regional Community Development Corporation. She moved to Charlotte from Philadelphia this summer, and is just getting settled into their new home. The Armbristers have five adult children.
Denise Armbrister said she is trying to figure out how she wants to impact the university and the community as first lady. She definitely wants to be a role model to young women at the school, but she hopes to play an even larger role.
Armbrister hopes his wife can play a role in community and economic development, which is one of her strengths. Like his predecessor, Armbrister is invested in insuring that JCSU has a voice in shaping development and growth in the west corridor.
With their wealth of financial and leadership experience, it will be exciting to watch as the Armbristers make their imprint on the university, the west corridor and the Charlotte community at large.