In the fall of 2017, when Clarence Armbrister was interviewing to become the 14th president of Johnson C. Smith University, he managed to sneak onto campus unnoticed, hoping to get a closer look at the school he hoped to lead.
Now as Armbrister, 65, prepares to depart Biddle Hall on June 30, he says his tenure as president has been marked with challenges and triumphs.
Under his watch, JCSU secured more than $80 million to improve its academic standing through the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative. Yet the Covid-19 pandemic dealt the school a crippling blow.
Over the course of two interviews – the first was in January; the second in late May – Armbrister talked with me about his time at JCSU.
When asked if he was leaving under his own steam, Armbrister gave an emphatic “yes.”
When asked if the job had proven harder than he had imagined, he again said “yes.”
“I didn’t expect it to be a piece of cake,” he said. “But I have to say, the introduction of Covid, it was a game changer.”
Armbrister recalled a day in March 2020 when the Covid “murmurs were getting bigger.” Within weeks, his campus had been emptied – vacant of students. They would not return until August 2021.
“So imagine from that time on, from March 26 (2020), the first item on every meeting agenda we had for the next two years was Covid,” he said. “That’s what we woke up talking about; that’s what you went to bed talking about. It was just time-consuming.”
The pandemic continues to take its toll. At the school’s May commencement, JCSU graduated about 200 seniors — about 50 short of its recent average. School officials said enrollment never recovered from the pandemic.
Armbrister said he’s leaving JCSU with lots of fond memories – especially memories of the students and faculty. But not everything he wished to accomplish got done, he said.
Q. So, you’re now in the home stretch.
A little bit. Trying to get across the finish line.
Q. How does it feel?
Somewhat daunting, knowing there are things I need to get done. But having gotten past commencement was a big milestone for the university, and it’s my favorite time of year, so anything else is kind of gravy at this point.
Q. What do you like about commencement?
The students. Watching the sense of accomplishment, the exhilaration, the excitement, knowing that, as we hand those diplomas out, you’re changing not only the trajectory of those students’ lives but for many of their families’ lives. It’s just wonderful. I’m getting chills just sitting here and thinking about it.
Q. The last time we talked, you said you were retiring, not just leaving JCSU to do something else. Has that changed?
I am retiring. No one is really taking me at my word for that. I’m going to retire from active employment, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be sitting idle. I don’t want to give people that impression. I’m going to be busy. I’m fairly young, thankfully have our health, and so I’m going to be active, but I’ll be retired from working in the day-to-day capacity.
Q. What’s that gonna look like?
Well, there are a couple of board things that I’m really involved in that I will probably get even more involved in. Some are nonprofit, some are for-profit, and I’m going to work on re-acquainting myself with my wife after 25 years. We’ll be celebrating our 25th anniversary this year, and really do some traveling and be intentional, really, about trying to spend some time with our grandchildren. We have four grandchildren, and the oldest is 13. And so we’re very wary of getting to that age where she may not even want to be around grandparents that much. So we want to kind of sneak in there and have some fun with them before they get too old.
Q. You will soon leave Charlotte and move to Wilmington. What do you like about Wilmington?
Well, it’s a wonderful community. It has some really deep history. And for me personally, I wanted to be near the ocean. Having grown up in Miami, the beach was really important to me. I like to play golf. I’ll have an opportunity to play golf almost year-round. But my wife is a much more practical person. She had three criteria, and Wilmington met every criteria.
The first criteria she had: it had to have an international airport. The other thing that my wife wanted was great health care. It has a great regional medical center, which was recently acquired by Novant. And then the last piece…we didn’t want to be in a rural community. We want to be in a fairly vibrant community that has people who look like us there. We found a small church that we attend when we are there. So we’re looking forward to it.
Q. Back to JCSU. What’s happening with the search for the school’s next president?
You probably have to talk to the (Board of Trustees) chair about that. I think, appropriately, I’m not involved in that process, although I can repeat what I heard the chair say to the National Alumni Association. It’s been going on very well. They had a plethora of candidates, and they’ve gotten it down to a small number. And I would expect that they’ll probably make an announcement in the next three to four weeks, certainly before I leave.
Q. So there will be some transitional overlap?
Yes, there will be something.
Q. Every leader leaves feeling he or she has left something unfinished. What are you leaving undone?
Well, there are a lot of things that you wish you could kind of see come to fruition. One of the things is the development along Beatties Ford Road. We recently reconstituted our board committees, and I can see that that work is going to get done. It will be working very closely with trustee Kieth Cockrell, who’s kind of leading our board development efforts. And now that we’ve gotten some resources to really focus on our program. I think the board and others realize that the next strategic leg on the stool is the development aspect. We need to develop our residence halls and then try to diversify our revenue base so that we’re not as dependent on tuition as we are now. And that’s going to mean, hopefully, some development along Beatties Ford Road.
Q. Development on property that JCSU owns?
Yes, the properties that we own — Liston Hall across the street, the (former) A&P property down the street. Those kinds of things.
Q. What might that look like? Any idea?
I won’t predict what that’s going to look like. We’re working with some consultants on those things now, but I’m hopeful that it’ll be something that will benefit certainly Johnson C. Smith but also add some value to the community as well.
Q. But the plan is to develop some kind of revenue-generating projects?
That’s certainly one of the hopes. At Liston Hall across the street, we’ve talked about doing a kind of multi-use development where we have residents halls, rooms and maybe some retail on the first floor. There’s a (CATS Gold Line) stop literally right across from Liston. We’re starting to have more serious conversations about things like that.
Q. Is there a blueprint for developing the former A&P property?
No, we haven’t made any final decisions. We’ve looked at various developments. A large part of that is going to be what the economics can bear on that site. The economic conditions haven’t been favorable recently for development, with interest rates going up and things like that. But there’ll be a time when that property is going to be able to support itself in terms of some longer-term economic development. So we’re looking at some stage development to get to the long-term development over time.
Q. What do you feel good about as you prepare to leave JCSU?
Well, one of the things that I like to think about is the fact that Johnson C. Smith is now in the consciousness of this community. And I don’t mean just the West End community. I mean the greater Charlotte and region. I think a lot of people knew Johnson C. Smith was here, but it really wasn’t at the forefront. It might have been in your subconscious. I think we brought Johnson C. Smith to the consciousness, along with the help of folks like Mayor (Vi) Lyles and the Duke Endowment and all of the corporations that have made those contributions to the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative. And I think people, in recognizing that we are here, are also recognizing the value that having a vibrant Johnson C. Smith can be to the community.
Q. MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire philanthropist, has given millions to various universities, including some HBCUs. How much did that help raise awareness of the needs of historically Black colleges?
I think those kinds of efforts, and the efforts that we had here, were instrumental, because people started to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute; there is a hidden treasure here that we have not cared for enough.’ And those kinds of gifts increased awareness significantly for HBCUs. Now, we were disappointed that we didn’t get one of those, but Kudos. Several of the schools in our conference got some. And so we were all happy. If an HBCU is held up, we’re all held up.
Q. There’s been a lot of second-guessing about how we as a nation handled Covid. Do you think we got it right?
Boy, I probably need to be 30,000 feet higher to answer that. Being in the midst of it, I think we did the best we could with what we knew at the time. I love sports, and I hate Monday-morning quarterbacks. Think about all the people who are not with us. Did we do right by them? I was reflecting the other day. I can think of about 10 people who are just not here anymore. Do they think we got it right? I think we did the best we could under the circumstances. But it was tough, and it was unprecedented. Nobody knew what was going on.
Q. What does it take to be a successful HBCU president these days?
Wow, that’s a good question. I think steely determination and really being your authentic self. The one thing about being at an HBCU, I think, and whether it’s with the faculty, the staff, and especially the students — they can see if you’re trying to front. My wife and I had nothing but a great time here. As hard as the job was, we truly enjoyed it because of our ability to interact with students, to interact with alumni who were just appreciative of the fact that we were present. We weren’t trying to hide anything, trying to do anything. We tried to tell them when things weren’t going well, and we tried to celebrate those things when they went well.
Editor’s note: Some answers were edited for brevity and clarity.