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JCSU's Clay Armbrister focuses on leading school past challenges
President looks back on first year
Published Thursday, April 4, 2019 12:25 pm
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

Johnson C. Smith University President Clay Armbrister will be officially inaugurated on April 5.

Clarence Armbrister has learned to manage challenges in his first year as Johnson C. Smith University’s president.

There was accrediting probation – a first for the school. Then there was a dormitory mold invasion that forced the delay of classes in January. Otherwise, it’s been a good run.

“It has exceeded my expectations,” said Armbrister, who will be officially inaugurated Friday. “There have been a couple of surprises, there have been a couple of challenges, but we’ve worked really hard to overcome those challenges.”

The biggest was removing JCSU from probation when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools sanctioned the school over financial oversight dating back to the tenure of Armbrister’s predecessor, Ron Carter. Alumni and supporters were surprised and angered by the announcement, but Armbrister, who arrived from a Philadelphia-area boarding school, was undeterred.

“We were on probation literally two weeks before I started on Jan. 1, 2018, but we’ve worked very, very hard and we have a great team of people who’ve worked very hard and we were able to overcome that and we were taken off probation,” he said.

“Crisis might be a strong word for it. It was certainly a challenge is the way I like to look at it. It was a challenge in part because you never want to be put in position of being looked upon negatively by your accrediting body. …You want to make sure you’re meeting the highest standards that an accrediting body sets. It was a challenge and we were up to it.”

JCSU’s case, Armbrister said, was helped by demonstrating a long-term business plan supported by the Duke Endowment that lays out a map of long-term sustainability. Despite financial challenges liberal arts schools face, the most nimble adapters to change will have a better chance at thriving.

“There are challenges at many of our institutions – HBCUs and other small, private institutions where there are resource challenges,” Armbrister said. “We have to face those resource challenges.”

Armbrister said JCSU is positioned for growth, primarily through student retention and growth. The school is looking to better leverage resources from scholarships to facilities and faculty to compete for scholars as well as reorganizing the admissions office, focusing on recruiting transfer students from junior college who are looking to earn a bachelor’s degree.

“It’s much cheaper to retain a student than to recruit a new one to replace a student who’s left,” he said.

After several years of flat enrollment, Armbrister said he believes JCSU is in position to add more students by attracting nontraditional and adult professional students to campus as well as outreach to first-generation collegians from Hispanic and Asian communities. The mission, however, won’t change.

“Last year in the fall, we had the largest entering class since 2012,” he said. “The goal is to retain them. …If we do those things and continue to do those things, I think Johnson C. Smith will be around for a very long time.”


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