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Clarence “Clay” Armbrister, a first-generation college graduate who holds a law degree but spent the bulk of his career in education, has been named 14th president of Johnson C. Smith University.

Armbrister currently serves as president of Girard College, a private, five-day boarding school in Philadelphia, a position he has held since 2012. Girard’s mission is to educate students from low-income families headed by single parents.

Armbrister will begin his term at JCSU on Jan. 1, 2018, replacing outgoing President Ronald Carter.

The JCSU Board of Trustees announced Armbrister’s appointment today, officially ending a nine-month search.

Armbrister also has held positions including:

• chief operating officer at Temple University
• managing director of the Philadelphia School District (1996-1998)
• chief of staff to former Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter (2008-2011), and
• Philadelphia City Treasurer (1994 to 1996)

As a lawyer, he was a partner in the public finance department at the Saul Ewing law firm, and he worked as an investment banker at UBS, leaving that firm in 2004 as a director.

The Florida native holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a law degree from the University of Michigan.

As Nutter’s chief of staff, he led the daily operations of the administration and its 23,000 public employees.

At Temple, Armbrister was responsible for guiding $400 million in capital projects on several campuses. He also led the school’s management, planning and coordination of student affairs; facilities management services; campus safety services; intercollegiate athletics; computer and information services; affirmative action; enrollment management services; and management analysis.

A broad lens

Shirley Hughes, who chairs the JCSU Board of Trustees and led the presidential search committee, said Armbrister’s “varied background in education, finance, government and law” gives him a “broad lens” at a time when higher education – especially as it relates to historically black colleges and universities – is anchored to a complex and changing landscape.

Bernard W. Smalley, chair of the Girard College Committee, said Armbrister will be a good fit for JCSU and its mission.


“…Clay has a passion for shaping young lives through the power of higher education, and JCSU offers a challenge that he just couldn’t pass up,” Smalley said in a statement. “I know this much: JCSU is getting a great leader who is dedicated to the cause of helping young people use higher education to build successful and productive lives.”

With a few notable exceptions, JCSU and Girard College share similar missions.

Girard, opened in 1848, was endowed by Stephen Girard (1750 – 1831),  a wealthy French immigrant who, upon his death, left his fortune to educate “ poor, orphaned or fatherless white boys who would live on campus,” according to the school’s website. The school began admitting male students of color in 1968 and female students in the 1980s. It covers grades 1-12.

JCSU traces its roots to 1867, when two Presbyterian ministers, both of them white, decided to open a school that would educate freed slaves. Initially named The Freedmen’s College of North Carolina and later Biddle Memorial Institute, JCSU’s early mission was to educate men for ministry. Today many of its students are the first in their families to attend college.

A crucial time

Armbrister will lead JCSU at a crucial time in its development. Even as Carter, the outgoing president, has given the school a more prominent voice in Charlotte, JCSU has been challenged financially, especially as the nation emerged from the last economic recession.

From fiscal year 2008-2009 to fiscal year 2014 –2015, the university spent $28.7 million on “unfunded aid” to assist hundreds of students whose parents could not afford tuition. Without that university assistance, Carter said during a 2016 interview with Qcitymetro, those students would have been sent home.

Despite the financial strain those outlays imposed, Carter said spending the money was a moral imperative.

Under Carter’s tenure, JCSU launched Metropolitan College for adult education, recruited more international students and placed a greater emphasis on careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). And as budgets tightened and priorities shifted, it shuttered some of its more traditional programs, such as its school of education, which once trained black teachers. It was a controversial move that angered some alumni.

Other HBCUs have faced similar challenges.

Building on the past

After surviving an effort in 2015 by a dissident director to oust him, Carter announced in August 2016 that he planned to resign. The school said at the time that he would remain president though May 2017, but finding Carter’s replacement took longer than some anticipated.

Carter has not said what his next job will be, but he told Qcitymetro last month that he plans to leave Charlotte.

“I’ve done what I’m supposed to do (in Charlotte),” he said. “I think it’s important for me to get out of the way of my successor.”

In a statement released by the university, Armbrister said he wants to build on Carter’s successes.

“I am honored and humbled to have been selected as the 14th president of Johnson C. Smith University, which throughout its 150-year history has improved the lives of its students and contributed to the growth of Charlotte,” he said in the statement. “I am especially looking forward to working with the Board, the faculty, staff and administration to position JCSU as one of the finest institutions of higher education in the country that meets not only the needs of its students, but those of the communities it serves—locally, regionally and globally.

Armbrister is married and has five children, including a daughter who is a graduate of Spelman College and a son who is a senior at North Carolina Central University. His wife, Denise, is a senior vice president at Wells Fargo in Philadelphia. She also is executive director of the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation and the Wells Fargo Regional Community Development Corporation.

Armbrister and his wife will be formally introduced to the campus on Oct. 19, officials said.

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Founder and publisher of Qcitymetro, Glenn has worked at newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Wall Street Journal and The Charlotte Observer.