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Secrets of the Presidential Turn-Around: ‘Success express’ still on track

‘Success express’ still on track
Dr. Jimmy Raymond Jenkins
Edward Waters CollegeDr. Jimmy R. Jenkins, the 26th president of Edward Waters College, has pulled off what is arguably one of the most impressive feats of institutional recovery that any postsecondary leader has achieved in recent years. When he took the helm in 1996, the 130-year-old college was on the brink of closure. Today, it enjoys unprecedented enrollment, financial solvency and soaring faculty, staff and student morale. How did he do it?
With sweat, optimism and vision.
Jenkins knew Edward Waters was in trouble when he was recruited for the job, but it wasn’t until after he assumed the presidency that he learned just how dire the historically Black college’s situation really was. Between the $4 million it owed to vendors, contractors, employees and the federal government (in back taxes), and another $4.5 million it was liable for in funds it had received from the federal government but inadequately accounted for, the school’s outstanding financial obligations totaled $8.5 million. Making matters worse, the campus was on the verge of having its accreditation yanked and enrollment had plummeted to 319 students.
“Quite frankly, I was not adequately prepared to receive that kind of information,” Jenkins admits. “But having signed on, my charge was to get in, roll up our sleeves and do what was necessary to rid ourselves of that kind of dark cloud.”  
Jenkins began his revitalization efforts at the cash-poor school by leading the administration, and eventually the faculty and staff, in a campus clean-up project, which involved cleaning, painting and beautifying the campus facilities. The sight of the president and the dean manning weed-whackers and wielding paintbrushes attracted media attention, which in turn drew the attention of local philanthropists and business leaders, who joined in by funding renovation of the dormitories and other campus facilities.
Jenkins then worked with local rail operator CSX Transportation to fund a whistle-stop college recruitment tour. Aboard the 10-car “Success Express,” as the train was called, the college’s admissions staff and Jenkins visited cities all along the East Coast holding college fairs and inviting students to consider advancing their education at Edward Waters. By the time the accreditation site visitors came from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to pull the plug on the college, they were so impressed they elected to give Edward Waters another chance.
“The one thing I’m most proud of is that we’ve been able to restore a level of integrity to where now the general public accepts (the college) with a level of confidence that it did not have before we came,” Jenkins says.
This fall, Jenkins expects enrollment to top 1,600 and the school is on the brink of launching an $85 million capital campaign, $25 million of which will benefit the school’s endowment and another $60 million of which will go to campus improvements. Not bad for a guy whose original plan was to pursue a career as a biology professor.
He says, “I try to give all that I have. It is rewarding to see the impact that that has had both here and at my alma mater (Elizabeth City State University).”
His advice to others who aspire to head postsecondary institutions is to recognize that in addition to being solid academic enterprises, colleges and universities must be economically sound to be successful.
 “You have to recognize that it is a business that we’re running. You have to operate in the black. If not, then you don’t get to deal with the other skills that you’re trying to impart.”
In addition, Jenkins says institutional leaders must recognize that they are not operating in a vacuum. Consequently, they must ensure that their students are able to compete with those attending other institutions. “You have to make sure that the result you get from students makes what we do worthy of the support from the alumni, government and foundations.”
Jenkins intends to remain at Edward Waters for at least another five years so that he can see the capital campaign through to completion. After that, he will evaluate what his next steps should be. Most likely, he says, he’ll start a higher education consulting firm and look to spend time with his forthcoming grandchildren. Meanwhile, he intends to continue the work that he started.
“I believe there is a lack of recognition of the fact that (HBCUs) are jewels to America,” he says. “African Americans have not only been disenfranchised, they have been devastated by the racism, the slavery that we’ve endured. We talk about reparations. I know it will be difficult if not impossible to pay people back for things they have suffered through, but there is an opportunity to use HBCUs as instruments of reparations.”  

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