Ten years ago, Clarence D. Armbrister was a finalist for president at North Carolina Central University, a historically Black institution in Durham, N.C.
“That really kind of piqued my interest,” Armbrister told The Tribune during an interview on Thursday with regard to leading a place of higher learning.
Earlier this year Armbrister was one of five presidential finalists at Lincoln University, an HBCU outside of Philadelphia, but lost out to Lincoln alumna Brenda Allen.
On Wednesday it was announced that Armbrister would take the helm of Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), a private, liberal arts HBCU located in Charlotte, N.C. He will begin on Jan. 1, and replaces current JCSU President Ronald Carter.
“I guess the third time is the charm,” said Armbrister, also known as “Clay.”
Shirley J. Hughes, the chair of the JCSU Board of Trustees and of the presidential search committee, said Armbrister’s experience is what made him stand out among other qualified candidates.
“Mr. Armbrister’s diverse career experience provided the competitive edge in a nine-month search,” said Hughes in a statement. “We believe his varied background in education, finance, government and law brings an exceptionally broad lens to the increasingly complex demands of the challenging landscape in higher education.”
Since 2012, Armbrister had led Girard College, a college preparatory boarding school in North Philadelphia, located at 2101 S. College Ave., serving grades first through 12th. He was the first African American man to lead the school. Enrollment at the campus is approximately 302.
“I’ll certainly miss the people and the students that I’ve worked with,” Armbrister said. “This is an outstanding institution. The mission of the institution is near and dear to my heart.”
While at Girard, Armbrister said he and staff were able to help stabilize the school, admitting that when he took over five years ago the school was going through a tumultuous time.
The historic college once considered closing the high school and boarding school programs, but the move was denied by a judge in 2014. Long before Armbrister’s arrival, the Board of City Trusts, which oversees the school, made investments that lost money. Most recently in November 2016, teachers picketed in front of the campus about not having a contract since 2010.
During that time last year, Armbrister previously told The Tribune that Girard had been committed to a fair and affordable contract with employees.
“Although those conversations were tough, they were beneficial,” Armbrister said. “If I’ve left anything, it’s the fact that you can disagree without being disagreeable.”
While in Philadelphia, Armbrister has held several roles including as the managing director of the School District of Philadelphia, as executive vice president and chief operating officer at Temple University, and as a chief of staff to former college classmate and once Mayor Michael Nutter from 2008-2011.
At the school district, Armbrister said he served simultaneously as the chief financial officer and as the chief operating officer who implemented, developed and prepared a $1.5 billion annual operating budget for about 215,000 students in the district from 1996-1998.
“It was a gargantuan task,” Armbrister said. “It opened my eyes in terms of administration and education.”
For sixth months in the latter part of 2011, Armbrister served as the senior vice president and chief of staff at John Hopkins University in Baltimore before returning to Philadelphia to work at Girard.
Girard Board President Ronald Donatucci said the board has accepted Armbrister’s resignation with deep regret.
“Clay has done a tremendous job as president of Girard College, and we are grateful for his outstanding service to Girard and to the children of our city,” said Donatucci in a statement. “We will miss him, and we wish him the very best as he takes on this new role.”
While the board searches for a new leader, Girard Vice President Ava Willis-Barksdale will serve as interim president.
Carter announced he would step down in August 2016 after leading the college for nine years. During Carter’s tenure, the U.S. Department of Education placed the university on its “heightened cash monitoring” list of more than 550 colleges and universities, which meant the college needed to undergo financial oversight. The college said it was the result of filing documents late, the Charlotte Observer reported in 2015.
Moreover, Carter increased majors from 22 to 25 and the college debuted its first graduate degree, according to JCSU’s website. This year the school turned 150 years old.
Based off information from October 2016, JCSU had an enrollment of 1,326 undergraduate and 102 graduate students. As colleges across the nation, particularly HBCUs, grapple with lowered enrollment and financial challenges, Armbrister said he will be working with school administration and its community on ways to strengthen JCSU in order to make sure HBCUs remain viable today and in the future.
“I strongly believe (HBCUs) are still important in the fabric of the country,” he said. “(JCSU) is a gem and I feel honored to be entrusted with a leadership role.”
A native of Miami, Armbrister received his bachelor’s degree in political science and economics from the University of Pennsylvania and his juris degree form the University of Michigan Law School.
Although Armbrister did not attend a Black college, two of his five children did. His daughter is a graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta and his son is a senior at North Carolina Central University. To note, two of his older brothers attended Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Fla.
“I have a very strong affinity for HBCUs and know the power that they possess in terms of transforming the lives of students and making education accessible,” Armbrister said.
Armbrister’s wife Denise McGregor Armbrister is the senior vice president of Wells Fargo Corporation and executive director of the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation and the Wells Fargo Regional Community.
The Armbristers will be formally introduced to JCSU on Oct. 19 leading into the college’s homecoming weekend.