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Secrets of the Presidential Turn-Around: An Alum to the Rescue

An Alum to the Rescue
Dr. Henry Nehemiah Tisdale
Claflin UniversityWhen Dr. Henry Nehemiah Tisdale assumed the presidency of Claflin University in 1994, the small historically Black institution had an unremarkable reputation. Founded in 1869 with the help of Methodist missionaries, Claflin is the oldest HBCU in the state of South Carolina. During its first century, it produced a handful of South Carolina leaders — including a chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, three bishops serving the United Methodist Church, and two of the nation’s first five African American men to receive bachelor’s degrees. But, by the time Tisdale became president, the institution was sagging under the weight of a deteriorating campus, an anemic financial situation and a middling public profile.
Tisdale, a proud Claflin alumnus who earned his bachelor’s in mathematics from the university in 1965 before going on to earn two master’s degrees and a doctorate at Temple University and Dartmouth College, was well aware of his alma mater’s challenges and its future potential.
“I knew the university’s inherent strengths in the area of the sciences, math and technology,” Tisdale says. “I also knew the institution had done things to put in place a stronger fund-raising and development office.” Despite these strengths, Tisdale admits the institution was barely noticed by those outside of South Carolina. “Our story had not been told,” he says.
Once selected as president, Tisdale worked with trustees, faculty, students and alumni on a plan he believed would put Claflin on the map. He first outlined an ambitious vision for the university, which the campus community embraced during his first year. Then, together, they developed a strategic plan for making that vision unfold.
“I knew we had to enhance our academic program at the institution and put some label of excellence on it,” Tisdale says. Achieving this goal meant raising the institution’s admissions standards, increasing the number of faculty who had terminal degrees and strengthening the overall academic performance of the school’s students, which among other things included ensuring that a greater number of Claflin graduates went on to pursue advanced degrees.
Today, thanks in large measure to Tisdale’s leadership, Claflin is considered one of South Carolina’s postsecondary jewels. Ranked No. 1 on U.S. News & World Report’s 2002 list of “Best Values” among comprehensive colleges in the southern United States, the campus has a graduation rate of 75 percent, a freshman retention rate of 79 percent, and has raised roughly $30 million in a recent capital campaign — a school record. The institution is ranked seventh overall on U.S. News’ “Top Schools” among institutions classified by the Carnegie Foundation as baccalaureate colleges and also recently won a $2.5 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation to strengthen its science, mathematics, engineering and technology instructional and research infrastructure.
Among the personal characteristics Tisdale credits for his success are affinities for people and for working as part of a team.
“I don’t have to be the one to take all the glory,” he says. “I believe in sharing … and when we have our success, we all share the success.”
The former American Council on Education fellow says these values were instilled in him while coming up through the ranks of higher education administration and observing the managerial styles of mentors such as Dr. John G. Kemeny, former president of Dartmouth College; Dr. E.A. Trabant, former president of The University of Delaware; and Dr. William B. DeLauder, president of Delaware State University.
“These were all individuals who valued people, who put them first and were not self- centered,” Tisdale says. “An institution can never be better than its faculty.”
Tisdale admits that bringing high achieving, Research I faculty onto a campus that has historically focused on teaching and learning can be a challenge. But he has successfully persuaded both factions that a combination of these strengths is needed if Claflin is to meet the high academic standards it has set for itself.
For those who are considering careers as higher education chief executives, Tisdale recommends focusing on achieving a stellar academic track record first and then working to develop leadership competencies. In addition to solid thinking and planning skills, he says today’s presidents need something else: “You have to be concerned about your character. You have to be the type of person people can believe cares about other people. Someone who they can trust.” 

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