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JCSU trustee: President-elect Armbrister will excel as CEO
Chair Shirley Hughes likes his vast experience
Published Wednesday, October 18, 2017 5:53 pm
by Herbert L. White

Johnson C. Smith University trustees board Chair Shirley Hughes.

Shirley Hughes is the most influential person on the Johnson C. Smith University campus.

As chair of the board of trustees, Hughes is responsible for JCSU’s leadership, including its recent hire of Girard College President Clarence D. “Clay” Armbrister as chief executive on Jan. 1. He succeeds Ronald Carter, who will leave on Dec. 31 after nine years on the job.

Girard, a Philadelphia-area prep school founded in 1848, enrolls academically capable students from low-income families.

Armbrister’s education experience includes positions at the School District of Philadelphia and executive vice president and chief operating officer at Temple University in Philadelphia and senior vice president and chief of staff at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  

Hughes talked with The Post about Armbrister, Carter and the state of JCSU, which is closing its 150th anniversary. Answers are edited for brevity and clarity.

• Impressions of Armbrister:

“I think we were able to find the right person at this time in the school’s history. …We were looking for a person who has the characteristics, the personality and temperament that we felt could continue this wonderful trajectory of Johnson C. Smith University as a place of excellence, as a place that prepares its students for the 21st century and as we march toward an independent, premier urban university, those things were most important.

• Will Armbrister’s background as chief of staff to former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter help the university navigate Charlotte’s political structure?

“I think someone’s experience in how governments work in addition to education will be very helpful. Johnson C. Smith University, like many things we’re doing, you have to work with the politicians, you have to work with foundations and community agencies and if you think about the Gold Line [streetcar] that we’re getting to stop at Johnson C. Smith, Dr. Carter had to work with political people in Charlotte, so whether someone knows a specific person or people in the political arena here, the fact that they’ve had experience of how you work with people is probably the most important thing.”

• What made Armbrister’s experience at Girard attractive:

“All of his experiences made him attractive and what works well is you look at the mission of Girard College and their mission is to help capable students who come from economically challenged backgrounds. That certainly fits very well if you think about the mission of Johnson C. Smith University, so we saw the two schools having very similar types of missions coupled with the fact he’s a first-generation college student. Many of our students are first-generation college students, so that gives him an understanding from a personal perspective. All of that helped.”

• What made JCSU attractive to candidates, given the challenges HBCUs face?

“We were told by the search firm we were an attractive job for several reasons. We’re located in the city of Charlotte. We’re not way out in the hinterlands. There’s nothing wrong with that, but some people want to live in a vibrant urban area. We have that going for us. The fact that there have not been big clashes between the board and the administration that unfortunately we’ve read about at some HBCUs and then our reputation for some of the things we’ve done in the past, so we were seen as an attractive opportunity for a number of people applying.”

• What is Carter’s legacy?

“Dr. Carter has done everything the board has asked him to do. We ended up with a list of seven things in the radical transformation that we wanted him to take. He not only accomplished all seven things, he exceeded them, and some of the things we asked him to focus on were a firm financial footing, a master faculty …in terms of the percentage of faculty with terminal degrees. …He’s also increased our profile in the greater Charlotte community and worked very well with our adjacent community neighbors in the Northwest Corridor. He leaves a very strong legacy and a very strong platform for any successive president to build upon.”

• What condition will Armbrister find JCSU in?

“I think he’ll find it in good shape. He’s going to step onto a campus where we’ve got 1,500 students both traditional [undergraduate degrees], master’s programs and people who are taking online degrees. He’ll walk onto a campus where the board is willing to join hands with him to develop a new strategic plan. We’re at the end of our old one. He’ll walk onto a campus where we hope by January or the month before, we’ll have concluded our $150 million capital campaign. He’ll walk onto a campus where it looks really good. He’ll walk onto a campus that is fiscally sound but we have the same issues as any independent small university and certainly as an HBCU. We need to continue to raise money to ensure we have the dollars to provide scholarships for our students to come here and students to complete their degrees and offer really good programs.”

Johnson C. Smith University President-elect Clarence Armbrister.


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