Service is in Her Blood
The daughter of noted blood bank pioneer Dr. Charles Drew, Dr. Charlene Drew Jarvis is no stranger to the spotlight. Yet, it is from her own political and educational pursuits that she has become a well-known figure in the Washington, D.C., area. After working as a research scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, Jarvis shifted her attention to serving the local community. In 1979, she was elected to the City Council of the District of Columbia, where she remained for 21 years. She served as chairwoman of the council and the committee on economic development.
In 1996, Jarvis was named president of Southeastern University, the first woman to hold the position. As president of the private, nonprofit university, she has strengthened its academic curriculum, expanded certificate offerings to those in the science and technology fields, increased enrollment, and developed numerous partnerships with local businesses and organizations. Recently, Jarvis sat down with Black Issues to discuss the university’s future and her role as its leader.
BI: What drew you to higher education, given your background in other areas, especially politics?
CDJ: I came into higher education because my 20 years as the chair of the Committee on Economic Development for the Council of the District of Columbia convinced me that women of color and other people of color were not really competing well for major economic development projects, which means that a focus on entrepreneurship was something that we were not teaching. And it seemed to me that the higher education route to getting students involved in entrepreneurship was exactly the place where I needed to be.
BI: What have you found to be the major differences and similarities between the two entities, politics and higher education?
CDJ: Well, there’s a great deal of politics in higher education. First of all, there is a great deal of competition between universities. There is a competition for students; there’s a competition for innovative programs; there’s a competition for resources; and now, particularly, there’s a competition between state-funded schools and private institutions. State-funded schools depended, in the past, on the largesse of the state for support, and now, in times of severe budget crisis at the state level, the universities have to go out and mine their alumni donor base. They’re going to the same foundations; they are going to the same corporations that small nonprofit universities are going to. So it’s creating tremendous competition at a time when foundation giving, individual giving and corporate giving is down.
BI: How do you compete in that environment? How do you position Southeastern University in that environment?
CDJ: Well, I think one of the things that all higher education associations are now talking about is access to higher education throughout the country. When I was at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, access for people of color to higher education was a major topic. And the solution to the problem of access has a great deal to do with funding. So there was a great deal of discussion about expanding the Pell Grant; there was a great deal of conversation about individual university scholarship programs, and innovation within the universities themselves. Many private colleges are beginning to think about what kinds of efforts they can undertake in order to attract minority students, especially now in light of the Michigan decision. …
One of the things that we are looking at in terms of Southeastern’s support is the same sort of appropriation in the Higher Education Act that is afforded to HBCUs, tribal colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions. Around the country, Southeastern has identified about 10 or 12 other institutions that are like us: nonprofit, private institutions that serve majority African American populations. We are not one of the historically Black colleges and universities, and yet we serve the same student body. I’ve been trying to persuade members of Congress … under Title IIIB, which is the HBCU appropriation … to establish a separate appropriation for other private, nonprofits that are serving an African American community. What we don’t want is to actually compete with HBCUs for the appropriations, which they have been successful in getting increased in this budget period of 2005.
BI: Are you working with the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), or UNCF or any of those institutions or organizations?
CDJ: We have been talking with both NAFEO and the UNCF about how to accomplish this, and there’s one recommendation that instead of Title IIIB, we work to expand Title IIIA. And the concern that we have about expanding Title IIIA is that it is a grants program. It is not entitlement, and the university may get a grant, which it gets competitively, and may stay in only five years. Well, our argument is that just as the HBCUs are able to get a funding, which they can expect every year, the other institutions that are private, nonprofit that are not HBCUs, which serve the same student population, ought to have essentially a IIIB-2.
BI: When people think of private, for-profits these days, they typically think of the University of Phoenix, DeVry and the Strayers of the world. How do you distinguish yourself from those types of institutions that, by all accounts, really don’t need a whole lot of help from anywhere?
CDJ: Well, we are not a for-profit institution. We are a university that was established in 1879 by the YMCA. We were chartered by the U.S. Congress in 1933. We were accredited by the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges, and we are not a for-profit entity. …
I would suggest to you that there really is a difference in outcome for students at for-profit and nonprofit universities. I think the difference in outcome is related to how nonprofits and for-profits spend their money. For-profits spend a huge amount of their money on marketing. Nonprofits, like Southeastern, spend money on academic advising units, on student services units, and other units of institutional structure that are commonplace in colleges and universities all over the country. For-profits, in order to spend the kind of marketing dollars that they spend, reduce what they spend on student services, on academic advising, on other traditional kinds of support services for students. For example, you don’t get writing centers; you don’t get the labs, math centers; you don’t get the kind of support that very often our students need when they are going into college because of deficiencies in their high school educations. So I suggest to you that student outcomes are different. …
BI: When we do our Top 100 editions every year and we look at the numbers, what we see is that in terms of technology and engineering degrees, schools such as DeVry and the University of Phoenix are doing well in terms of graduating African American students. What does that portend for the competition between HBCUs and these proprietary institutions?
CDJ: I think that your question really goes to all of higher education, which is how does the for-profit competition with the nonprofit universities portend for the future? So the issue for all of education is what’s happening with this looming new cost delivery system that is being provided by the for-profits, and the answer is, for me, that higher education has endured because it has certain kinds of characteristics and strengths of curriculum that have endured, and the test is yet to be.
BI: Does it mean that the traditional institutions, be they general or HBCUs, have missed an opportunity? Because it certainly appears to be that there were some demands that were not being met.
CDJ: Well, Southeastern University has begun Southeastern University Online. We now offer online courses, and the interesting thing about our entry into online learning is that we’ve had students who have migrated to online learning, but they have essentially taken a hybrid program, which means that they have some on-campus courses and they have some online courses. And what this has meant for many African American women with children who are in our population, is that they can get through faster because they can do some of the on-campus courses, and of course, online courses every quarter. And they have found it to be a very, very salutary way of getting an education, both face-to-face and online.
BI: What is the niche that is going to distinguish Southeastern under your leadership?
CDJ: Well, for one thing, we are very much interested in having students who leave the university with extra competencies that make them valuable to the marketplace. So one of the things about us is that we are very nimble. We’re not layered with bureaucracy, so once there’s a presidential decision that we’re going to move in a certain direction, we are able, because of our small size, our entrepreneurial spirit, to undertake programs and get them done. …
I think Southeastern also distinguishes itself from other universities in the District because we are an open-enrollment university, but also because we really specialize. We’re not a comprehensive university. You can’t come here and get a degree in physics. Basically we are a university that has concentrated on business, on business management, on public administration, on management, on information systems management, so we really have a focused curriculum here at the university, which makes us unlike the four-year comprehensive college. We also are a university that has a good mix of adults and younger students.
BI: I have to ask you this: How is it that the nation’s capital does not have community colleges?
CDJ: Well, you know we actually did not have a (public) four-year university of higher education until the three entities were put together to become the University of the District of Columbia. And there are many people within the Congress who believe, and frankly, within the local administration, who believe that Washington shouldn’t have its own university because it doesn’t have the resources of a state. And I think that is a very unhealthy attitude toward higher education. I think that’s what has led to lack of support, frankly, for our institution of higher education here among some.
BI: What sort of post-9/11 impact, in terms of immigration issues, students, former students, are you dealing with?
CDJ: For Southeastern University 9/11 produced a fairly dramatic decrease in … international student enrollment. We, fortunately, had been marketing to the local domestic students. The undergraduate student in the region now really is the majority student at Southeastern, and it actually has allowed us to overcome the decline in international students after 9/11. The decline of students has been augmented by the fact that many of our international students were in computer science, and, of course, there was a technology bust in the region.
BI: Ironically, community colleges house the most international students in the population in the country; do you see partnerships, transfer programs or any of those types of things as being part of your mix in your future?
CDJ: Yes, in fact our academic people now are working on articulation agreements with two-year schools. And the tricky part of matriculation for us is that we’re on a quarter system, and many are on the semester system. But that’s OK; we can work out equivalencies in terms of credit hours. So that’s a very important source for us.
BI: What is it that Southeastern University can brag about?
CDJ: Well, first of all we are very proud of our alums. We are very proud of the fact that one of our alumni came here as a graduate student, built a $40 million business, and has been able to come back with a $100,000 grant. … We’re very proud of the fact that another alum came here as a graduate student, left and built a business that is now at $150 million and has made contributions to the university to support its ongoing operations. So we do have a lot to brag about, but I think what is probably more important is on the input side. In other words, Southeastern University is available to students, many of whom didn’t think college was possible. They are students who didn’t understand the financial aid process. They are students whose parents never encouraged them to go to college, or they are highly motivated professionals who want to be able to come to a college experience on a part-time basis, and be successful in their chosen goals with a degree from Southeastern, and many have been.
BI: Finally, what was the best and worst thing about having your father in your life, your childhood?
CDJ: The best thing was that he was in my life, because my father was absolutely committed to achievement, and that’s what he imparted, not only to his children, but also to the students that he served, the students that he taught. And the students that he taught at the Howard University School of Medicine, he instilled in them the notion that they had a responsibility to the next generation of students in medical schools, to go out around the country to bring back the very best of techniques to Howard University and then to teach the next generation of surgeons those techniques.
The idea of teaching and instilling excellence and instilling responsibility for the next generation was really paramount in his life. And I think, for me and for members of my family, the question was always, in the circumstances that we find ourselves in, are we doing our best, and are we setting goals in our professional lives? So that’s always the upside of it. There’s no downside of that. My father believed that everyone, and my mother used to say, every pot has to stand on its own bottom. So that’s what we learned. We didn’t learn that we were in anybody else’s limelight. What we learned is that every pot has to stand on its own bottom. And he was a giant of a figure in our lives, and yet I don’t have this feeling that I can’t live up, because his view was you have your own path and you have to take it and build it yourself. And I think that was the most important outcome.
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