Johnson C. Smith's New President Prioritizes Economic Mobility

Mar 28, 2019

Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte is a private liberal arts school with a strong heritage as a historically black school. Johnson C. Smith's president is Clarence Armbrister. He's been on the job since January of 2018 but his official inauguration ceremony will be held on Friday, April 5. Clarence Armbrister joins WFAE’s Mark Rumsey to talk about his time at JCSU so far and his vision for the school's future.

Mark Rumsey: Mr. Armbrister, good afternoon.

Clarence Armbrister, president of Johnson C. Smith University.
Credit Sarafina Wright / WFAE

Clarence Armbrister: Good afternoon Mark.

Rumsey: JCSU’s accrediting agency the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in December issued a new 10-year accreditation for the school. Does this mean that Johnson C. Smith is financially stable today?

Armbrister: It does. In fact, what the accrediting body did was to reaffirm our accreditation and to remove us from probation. And the reasons that we were on probation were for financial instability. We were able to demonstrate over the course of the year that we are in fact stable and that we are worthy of meeting the standards that the accrediting body set forth for us to meet.

Rumsey: Well, what changed then? To demonstrate that?

Armbrister: Well, we did maybe a few things differently than maybe we had in the past. We had a more focused budgeting process. We were fortunate enough to have a very focused recruitment and retention effort to have the largest entering class that we've had since 2012, I believe. And we began this fall with a little over 1,560 students. More importantly, we began to look very hard as to how we operate. We know that we need to be very appreciative and good stewards of the resources that we have and all of those things factored into providing a stable outlook for the university.

Rumsey: Looking at the broader picture of HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities, particularly I wanted to ask you about private institutions such as Johnson C. Smith. Are schools in this category facing especially challenging times?

Armbrister: Well, yes. Many institutions, in fact, all private institutions particularly smaller institutions are challenged in many respects. We are resource challenged if you don't have a significant endowment. And so among the things that you have to do is making sure that you can provide the quality of education you can. And one of the things that we think is part of our secret sauce here in Charlotte at Johnson C. Smith is our ability to really put our hands around our students and to help guide them.

Rumsey: We were hearing a few months ago about the problem with mold in dorms on campus, not something anybody wants to hear, students, their parents or administrators. Has that been fixed?

Armbrister: We have addressed very directly the issues that affected our dorms and the conditions that resulted in us delaying school. We've committed to doing three things. We told the students and their families that we would inspect every room, which we did, with a third party expert, that we would remediate if we found anything with a third party expert and that we would not put a student in a dorm unless that room had been remediated or cleared. And so we met our commitment, though it took a little longer than we would have liked.

Rumsey: So is everything reopen now?

Armbrister: Yes. Every student is back on campus.

Rumsey: In the bigger picture on campus there are a number of old buildings on campus. So how much of an issue is that, not just with mold but upkeep and maintenance and having the facilities that you need?

Armbrister: It always is a challenge. We're cognizant of our need to go in and do preventive maintenance as much as we can. And quite frankly, one of the things that we're doing is that I've asked for a master planning exercise. That master planning exercise might, and probably will, result in the repurposing of buildings. Some maybe you know removed and hopefully, other buildings can be put in their places including residence halls for our students. So we're always looking at that and that process is really underway as we speak.

Rumsey: The advance billing for your inauguration address on April 5 says that you'll be discussing how JCSU is uniquely positioned to provide students with opportunities that can lead to upward social and economic mobility. The university is also hosting a symposium on that topic the day before your inauguration. So how specifically do you envision JCSU contributing to upward mobility in Charlotte?

Armbrister: I think Johnson C. Smith as it sits here in this wonderful city of Charlotte, in the community that is number one in just about everything else, to be 50th in that economic upward mobility stat is one that I've looked around and looked into the eyes of the business leaders, the civic leaders. it's one that really pains them. And I am convinced that this business and civic community is really dedicated to making a difference. I mean we are the HBCU in this city. On an average year, we're going to graduate 200-300 students who are poised and ready to make sure they can go out into the world. So it's our job to fulfill our promise to those students. If we meet that promise and we deliver those students to this region we think we can make a dent in that upward mobility statistic.

Rumsey: Clarence Armbrister is president of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. Mr. Armbrister thanks for your time today.

Armbrister: Thank you Mark. Appreciate it.