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Charlotte HBCU Johnson C. Smith Weathers Pandemic With Smaller Student Body, Loan Forgiveness And Emphasis On History

In a statement marking the Juneteenth holiday, Johnson C. Smith University’s president, Clarence Armbrister, said work to eliminate systemic racism must continue long after the media spotlight fades.
Courtesy JCSU
Johnson C. Smith University’s president, Clarence Armbrister, said the school has taken several protective measures for the coronavirus, including requiring COVID-19 vaccinations and staggering in-class attendance.

Students are back on campus at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, but not as many as, say, two years ago. University officials say enrollment is down from a high of 1,500 students in 2019 to 1,200 students this semester. In talking about new programs and efforts to make Smith more visible, President Clarence Armbrister says he blames most of the enrollment drop on the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Clarence Armbrister speaks at Johnson C. Smith University.
Courtesy JCSU
President Clarence Armbrister speaks at Johnson C. Smith University.

Clarence Armbrister: COVID-19 has had a very, very significant impact on Johnson C. Smith, in large part because we, unlike many other campuses around the country, we were closed all year. We brought students back two weeks ago. It was the first time in over 500 days that we had students taking regular classes on the campus.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Are students also on campus and virtual, as well? Or are all classes in person?

Armbrister: We've created two cohorts here on the campus. As you know, our colors are gold and blue, so we have a Gold Cohort and we have a Blue Cohort. Each cohort will attend in-person classes for a week while the other synchronistically — meaning at the same time as a class is going on — will take the class online. And then they switch up every week.

The classrooms are not densely populated. We have little markers on each of the seats where you cannot sit and masks are required in all indoor facilities on campus and especially in the classrooms.

So we have plexiglass barriers between the instructors and the students and instructors also wear masks. We have hand sanitizers in the classrooms so that people can make sure that they're maintaining their own personal health. We have guides one way, you know, stairs up and down, things like that. Really trying to maintain the social distancing and trying to make sure that we do everything we can to maintain the safe environment for everybody on the campus.

Glenn: Now, some schools are requiring vaccinations. Are you requiring vaccinations of students and faculty?

Armbrister: We did, as well. We required mandatory vaccinations of all of our students, faculty and staff, with two exceptions: if you had a doctor, physical exemption and or religious exemption.

Glenn: And right now, do you know what percentage are?

Armbrister: For the faculty, the vast, vast majority, I would say probably over 90%. The numbers are a little less with our students. (There are) many more students who applied for exemptions.

Glenn: Well, let me ask you this: How much federal COVID-19 funds has the university received and how are they being used?

Armbrister: The university in total has probably received over about $30 million in aid. And it's very important that we have that money because enrollments are down. In addition to which, we had to expend a lot of money in order to become, you know, to provide a safe environment. But significantly, a lot of that money will go to the lost revenue. You know, when we closed down on March, I think it was March 23, 2020, we had an obligation to refund certain portions of students' room and board. So those were some of the uses to which the money went, as well.

Glenn: Well, another thing that I understand that Johnson, C. Smith and many other HBCU have done with that federal funding is to forgive loans. Tell me about that.

Armbrister: We've similarly done that. But even more so, as we were going into the fall of 2020, we gave every returning student funds to reduce the expense of their education. And these were funds in addition to the money that they got directly from the federal government. What we also did is that for every returning student, we gave them $2,500 — $1,250 each semester. And for new students, we gave them $1,000. And that totaled nearly $3 million that we gave out last year.

But we did alleviated balances for students to allow them to register and clear this year. And those totals were about $300,000-$400,000. Most of those were loans that were forgiven, that were made by the university. So, you know, they weren't necessarily forgiving federal loans. And that's something to be clear.

Glenn: OK. Well, let me ask you this: Any new degree programs the university is offering or any plans to bring back your education teacher training program, degree program?

Armbrister: So we doubled down in three areas. Those areas are business finance — you know, we sit in the second-largest financial center in the country. And just so happens that our largest major at Johnson C. Smith is our business program. It was recommended that we made some significant investments in that program, and we plan to do that.

And our second-largest major is in the life sciences and biology. And we are going to double down in that program. As well. The third area, we doubled down in is data analytics. We think that that's a niche as part of our STEM and/or business programs that we think we can grow into.

The last part of your question, you asked if we were thinking about bringing back the education school. At this point, that is not currently on the radar. You know, we do participate in several programs around the region where we help and assist teachers prepare themselves for college and work with some of the other local universities that have education programs.

Glenn: And finally, I'd just like to ask you, do you plan to have the university more involved in, say, for instance, the social consciousness movement in issues such as voting rights and the Black Lives Matter movement? Do you see a role for Johnson C. Smith in these areas?

Armbrister: Absolutely. And although it may not have been prominently covered, we've been involved in each of those areas. We continue to be involved in the West Charlotte community here. And we're also in the process of — thought we haven't announced it yet — we have been working on a Race and Social Justice Center.

Shortly after the death of George Floyd, we offered this opportunity and we were pleasantly surprised at the vast number of faculty and staff who we're interested in doing that. And we'll be making an announcement shortly about the creation of our Race and Social Justice Center. So we can and we want to be, as Johnson C. Smith has always been, involved in those issues because that's why we're here.

Biddle Hall, in which I sit, sits at one of the highest points in Charlotte. One of the things that we've done recently is that we have reestablished the bell clock towers and that tower is now lit and could be seen from any place in Charlotte, particularly from uptown. It flashes our colors right now, gold and blue. And we want to make sure that people recognize that Johnson C. Smith is here. But more importantly, it's incumbent upon us, though, to make sure that we continue to produce graduates who can demonstrate competence and excellence in their chosen field.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.