Clarence D. “Clay” Armbrister became the 14th president of Johnson C. Smith University on Jan. 1, 2018, succeeding Ron Carter, who stepped down in 2017 after leading the university for nine years.
Campus leaders say Armbrister’s diverse career gave him the competitive edge in their nine-month national search. He moved to Charlotte from Philadelphia, where he was president of Girard College, an independent college preparatory school for academically capable students from economically disadvantaged families. His background in education also includes time in leadership roles at Temple University, Johns Hopkins University, and the School District of Philadelphia, and he has held executive positions in law, government and finance.
Armbrister joins Johnson C. Smith at a critical time for the urban campus. Established in 1867 to educate African American men for the ministry, the private university now has 1,400 students, a new science center, and a graduate degree in Social Work. Along with Davidson College, Duke University and Furman University, it’s one of four institutions of higher education supported by The Duke Endowment.
To achieve ‘sustained success,’ Armbrister believes Johnson C. Smith must focus on resources, recruitment, retention and rigor.
“With the necessary resources, we can continue to recruit and retain high quality students who, through a rigorous education, will be in a position to make their mark on the world,” he says. “We don't know what problems these next generations of students are going to solve, but I’m looking for those future thinkers and leaders to come from Johnson C. Smith.”
Armbrister discusses his presidency – and the changing landscape of higher education – in the following interview.
What drew you to this campus?
The first thing was the Johnson C. Smith board and its leadership. Its commitment to the university is unparalleled with anything I've seen in higher education.
Second, was the quality of the educational experience. The university's QEP – the Quality Educational Plan – is one of the best documents I've ever read. I was impressed by its focus on research and how important that is in the development of students.
What has surprised you the most?
The genuine warmth and welcoming attitude of the students. I love interacting with them. On Valentine's Day, I came back to my office after a busy day and found a giant card on my desk in the shape of a heart. It was signed by dozens of students.
What’s most important to be successful as a college president? A background in economics? Experience in higher education? A sense of humor?
I think flexibility. You never know what the challenges are going to be.
What are the challenges for you?
Today's students are very consumer conscious. As a private institution, we have to show value for a family to be willing to make this significant investment. Students have choices about where to study, and those choices are sometimes less expensive than Johnson C. Smith. We want to be student-centered and make sure we're doing everything we can to meet their needs. The bottom line for us is positive student outcomes.
What student outcomes are you working toward?
We're going to produce students who can communicate effectively, think critically, work both independently and collaboratively, and be able to demonstrate that they have produced competence in their chosen field. We hope that's evidenced by one of two ways: they get a job that's consistent with their education or they expand their knowledge in graduate school.
What role do you see HBCUs playing in higher education today?
The same role they've played for 151 years, which is providing a high quality education to students who want to be educated in this type of environment.
There was a time when there weren't a lot of other choices for students of color when they went away to college. Today, students have a lot of opportunities – but HBCUs are still in the business of providing a high quality education. That continues to be our mission.
What makes Johnson C. Smith unique among HBCUs?
I’d have to say its location. It sits in one of the most exciting cities in the United States and one of the largest financial centers in the country. If you want an urban education and you want it in an environment in which you're going to be nourished and encouraged, there's no better place than Johnson C. Smith University.
Ten years from now, when members of the Class of 2018 return, what changes will they see?
I have a vision of a campus that's been revitalized in terms of its physical space. I also see changes in the surrounding area, including a vibrant strip of commercial and mixed-use development.
It's going to be a very exciting time around here at Johnson C. Smith University, but we must continue to work on finding the necessary resources and finding partners outside the campus gates.
What might your legacy be?
I have a personal motto that I picked up as a freshman in college: “Success is not the result of a spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire." What that means to me is that you must take personal responsibility and be committed to what you're doing.
I am truly committed to doing everything I can to create ‘sustained success’ on this campus. We’ve had unevenness from time to time, but the conditions are ripe for sustaining an upward trajectory for years to come.
Susan L. McConnell
Director, Higher Education