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Secrets of the Presidential Turn-Around: ‘Plugged in’ in the Piedmont

‘Plugged in’ in the Piedmont
Dr. Dorothy Cowser Yancy
Johnson C. Smith UniversityIt takes a lot of personal energy to be a college president, especially when one’s goal is to achieve more than the status quo. Dr. Dorothy Cowser Yancy has always been known as someone with energy to spare. As the president of Johnson C. Smith University, she’s applied that vigor to transforming the small college into one of the most technologically heralded liberal arts institutions in North Carolina. Earlier this year, the school, which promotes itself as the “Laptop University,” was named among the 50 Most Wired Small Colleges in the country by Yahoo! Internet Life magazine.  (See story,  pg. 40.)
“I was determined that my students weren’t going to be left behind. They were not going to leave Johnson C. Smith shortchanged,” Yancy says of her decision to invest heavily in the university’s technology infrastructure. Having come to JCSU from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she was a professor of labor relations and political science, Yancy was accustomed to operating in a technologically savvy environment. She viewed technology as an essential component of her strategy to improve the caliber of education provided by JCSU.
With buy-in from her faculty, trustees, students and alumni, she led the campus in a two-year planning effort that resulted in the decision to see that every freshman would receive a laptop upon registration.
“A lot of schools had decided to have (computer) labs,” Yancy says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but I felt that because we had infused technology into the curriculum, kids needed to plug in anytime, anywhere.”
 Perhaps it is Yancy’s upbringing on an Alabama farm that gave her an early appreciation for technology and an understanding that it is only as good as the people behind it. From the beginning, JCSU faculty and students have played key roles in the institution’s information technology strategy. Together with Yancy and others at the institution, they have ensured that the curriculum is what drives the technology and not the other way around.
“I’m an academician at heart,” Yancy says. “I’m concerned about the academic program and whether (the technology) is helping our students.”
Evidence that the school’s academic program has improved can be found in several places. Not only has the excellence of JCSU’s faculty increased — 81 percent now have terminal degrees, and one received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award” in 1996 — but also the number of students applying for admission has tripled. This year, the university jumped into the top tier of U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of liberal arts institutions in the South (ranked 25th), and in 1999 and 2001 it emerged among the top 25 in Black Enterprise’s listing of the “Top 50 Colleges for African Americans.”
Under Yancy’s leadership, the institution also has reached new financial heights. In 1998, it surpassed its capital campaign goal of $50 million by raising $63 million. The endowment has doubled, from $15 million to $30 million; and thanks to a faculty research incentive program that Yancy designed, the school also is experiencing a significant increase in the number of funded research grants.
Similar to other presidents included in this series, Yancy did not set out to become a college president. As a young girl, she entertained thoughts of becoming a research chemist like her favorite science teacher. Though she did not go on to earn a degree in chemistry, her exposure to the liberal arts while an undergraduate at Johnson C. Smith imbued her with a well-rounded background and fueled her desire for more knowledge. She went on to earn a master’s in history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a doctorate in political science at Atlanta University. She also has certificates in management development and labor arbitration. These diverse educational experiences have led Yancy to believe that a solid liberal arts education is the foundation upon which a great number of rewarding careers can be built. It is especially useful, she says, for those who are considering careers as higher education leaders.
“You need a sound, liberal arts education to be able to think,” she says, adding that college presidents also must be prepared to commit themselves fully to an institution if they expect to achieve meaningful change.
“My grandmother used to tell me, ‘You can be anything if you prepare yourself.’ But you have to have a determination. You have to be prepared to stick with it in the long haul. You can’t change an institution in a short time.”

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