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It was three years ago this month that Clarence D. Armbrister arrived on the campus of Johnson C. Smith University to begin work as the school’s 14th president.

Looking back, he describes the journey so far as “challenging.”

His first big task upon arriving in January 2018 was to address the school’s foundering finances — JCSU had been placed on probation because of money concerns. Then, less than a year into his tenure, some of his students went public with complaints about dangerous mold growing in dormitories. And who could have predicted the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, which will keep JCSU students away from campus for a full academic year?

While some universities have allowed in-class learning cautiously to resume, not so for JCSU. With Covid-19 numbers reaching new highs, Armbrister and his staff were forced to scrap a plan that would have brought students back in early February. Instead, online classes will continue.

Speaking with QCity Metro in a recent telephone interview, Armbrister noted the disproportionate impact that Covid-19 has had in communities of color, including west Charlotte.

“We have a responsibility not only to our students, faculty and staff, but also to the community,” he said. “So we took all those factors into consideration, and as difficult a decision as it was, we made the decision that it was not in our best interest as an institution and as a member of this community to bring those students back.”

In the Q&A below, Armbrister talks about that decision and other factors impacting JCSU. His answers were edited for brevity and clarity.

What are the financial implications for keeping the campus closed to students?

There are a myriad of things. You save on some things, obviously, but the net tuition revenue is a challenge. 

I won’t go into specifics because I don’t know those numbers off the top of my head, but believe me, we’d much rather have them here than worry about the financial implications. There are some savings, but also there are some costs as well. What we’d like to do, quite frankly, is try to invest in some of those things we’re saving on — food service, housing. But there are still fixed costs that we have to incur. Those buildings are still here. They need to be maintained, the heat has to be on, all those things.

We were fortunate, however. I’ll say this because I always like to give her props — Representative Alma Adams, as she did under the CARES Act in this most recent stimulus package, was able to ensure that minority-serving institutions — HBCUs in particular — can anticipate getting some additional funds that would help offset some of the cost of not having students here and the lower enrollments.

What are you hearing from parents and students?

Well, I try not to get on social media. [Laughs]

There are probably some students who are very upset, and I understand that some of those expressions of disappointment have been made there (on social media).

We think for us, at Johnson C. Smith, it was the right decision.

I got a call from a parent. This is before we made the final decision.

The message said her son was very discouraged after learning that there may be a change in returning to campus. She went on to explain that she understands the university’s reluctance to open up with the (Covid-19) numbers rising. But the parent, she felt comfortable with the precautions and measures that we had outlined, because we’ve been having conversations with our parents and students, obviously.

And then she went on to say, not surprisingly, that her son is seeing other students at other institutions returning. So she was very concerned. I got that note the day that we were making the decision. So I called her back literally as we were hitting the send button on the email that was going out to the students, telling them they wouldn’t return.

She was surprised to get my call. But I said to her, I got your message, and it was such a heartfelt message. And I said, I do feel your son’s pain, but I want you to know that we made this decision in the best interest of all the students.

First of all, she appreciated the call. Second of all, she said, I do understand he’s disappointed, but I understand you’re making the best decision you can. Every parent, maybe every student, doesn’t feel that way. But that kind of warmed my heart a little bit to know that at least that parent understood and that many parents out there will understand. And ultimately, when students have a chance to really reflect on what we’re trying to do, they will understand as well.

You just celebrated your third anniversary. How have those first three years gone, and what are you most proud of?

It’s been somewhat challenging, as you well know. When I came in, we were faced with probation. We’ve had environmental challenges — dormitories that had mold outbreaks — and now this. So I’ve had challenges every year. But having said that, what I’m most proud of is that Johnson C. Smith University, through the hard work of a lot of folks here, is really getting integrated into the fabric of Charlotte in a way that I think it hasn’t been in a little while.

I say that particularly from the standpoint of the business community. I’ve been fortunate enough to be welcomed into a lot of business circles and getting to make the case for Johnson C. Smith. And I am very, very proud of the fact that our message is being heard. And I think that in the not-too-distant future, you’re going to see some manifestations of that work.

Charlotte is just a great city. As Charlotte’s only HBCU, we have a unique, and I really do mean a unique, opportunity to build upon the progress that the city is making. And I can’t thank enough people like Mayor (Vi) Lyles, who has made Johnson C. Smith University one of her four priorities here.

That resonates. People are hearing that. So no one has closed the door in my face. Everyone wants to help. They just want to know how, and we’re on the verge of telling them how.

I’m really looking forward to the support that I think I can expect from this philanthropic and business community and the support that we’ve gotten. So I’ve just been pleasantly surprised. I knew I was coming to a great city; I just didn’t know how great a city it was.

We’ve seen headlines about wealthy donors making substantial gifts to HBCUs. Why do you think JCSU has been excluded?

I don’t know, and I don’t know that those are over yet, to be perfectly honest with you. The word exclusion kind of anticipates the fact that it might be permanent. Some of the information I’ve gotten is that those may have been only the first or second round.

You know, I can’t get in the mind of certain donors. But I think if they look at Johnson C. Smith and the work that we’re doing here…that once we continue to get our story out, we’ll get a lot more notice.

I’ve talked to a lot of folks, and I’m not willing to give up on that. So I would not put a period, but maybe some ellipses, at the end of that and not say that we’ve been excluded yet. Our time, I think, is yet to come.

What keeps you up at night?

What keeps me awake at night, at least for right now in this very, very short term, is trying to maintain the enthusiasm of our students. They’ve had it rough. I think about those students, particularly those students who would have been coming as freshmen, how their high school senior year was interrupted and now their first year of college is interrupted.

What keeps me up at night is thinking about how we can provide the kind of support necessary to keep them engaged, those in particular who haven’t had that college experience. These are unusual times; nobody would have ever expected this. And if I can implore them to do anything, it’s not to give up.

The letter I wrote to them on Monday, January 11th, was like a part-two of a letter I’d written in the wake of George Floyd. And the letter I’d written back then said, we need you now more than ever. And I noted (in the second letter) the previous week’s activities in our nation’s capital.

This generation is the generation that’s going to save this world. You know, I’m an old head, and we need these students more than ever. So what keeps me up at night — I just don’t want them to give up. I don’t want them to lose hope. I want them to make sure that they find the kind of transformational opportunities that education can provide and that they take advantage of them so that we don’t have the George Floyds in their future and they don’t have the kind of challenges that we’re seeing in D.C.

They can be the leaders that make sure that those things don’t happen. So, Johnson C. Smith is here prepared to create those kinds of leaders, and I just don’t want them to give up in the face of what I hope is a temporary setback with Covid and all these other things.

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.

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