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Presidential Memoirs

A conversation with outgoing Johnson C. Smith University President Dorothy C. Yancy

Though Dr. Dorothy C. Yancy says she had “no intention” of assuming the presidency of Johnson C. Smith University when tapped to lead her alma mater on an interim basis in 1994, rave reviews of her passion to propel JCSU to new heights led the search committee to declare that they had found in Yancy what they were looking for, and more. In particular, her determination to keep JCSU on the cutting edge of technological innovation gained the university national renown, as in 2000 when JCSU became the first historically Black “Laptop” university, issuing IBM Thinkpads to all of its students. Subsequently, JCSU was ranked among the top 50 most wired small colleges in the United States by Yahoo Internet Life magazine.

Yancy’s own life has been filled with many milestones: She was the first Black woman to helm JCSU, and previously she was the first to be promoted and tenured as a full professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2001, Yancy also became the first woman to be elected president of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

Yancy’s fundraising prowess at JCSU was unprecedented. Since 1994 she has raised in excess of $145 million for the university and has more than tripled JCSU’s endowment. Additionally, applications to Johnson C. Smith have increased four-fold under her leadership.

Yancy will step down from the JCSU presidency this month, and in an interview with Diverse, she offers a retrospective on her 14- year tenure.

DI: When tapped to be interim JSCU president in 1994, you said you were not interested in taking the job permanently. What changed your mind?
DY: I began to work, and I found the work to be challenging and exciting, and I also felt an obligation to give back. I’m a graduate of Johnson C. Smith. I had been out in the working world for 20-odd years, and I have always felt that Johnson C. Smith gave me a firm foundation to be an academic, and that I needed to give back, other than just to write a check and come to homecoming and do the regular support things that graduates do.

DI: How has JCSU evolved technologically since you first took office?
DY: The previous president had put fiber [optic cables] in the ground, but it didn’t connect to anything, and we didn’t have the upgraded machines. Back in those days, you had to have hubs on buildings, and you went from hubs to blades and finally to ethernet — we’ve gone through every stage since I’ve been here. We had to connect all of the academic buildings, the administrative buildings, the student dormitories, and we had to have a technology plan in terms of how we were going to go about doing that, and then we moved into the laptops for all students in 2000. My grand idea was that an HBCU could provide access to all of its students with proper planning.

DI: As Johnson C. Smith University has thrived, many of its fellow HBCUs have stuggled with sagging enrollment and financial troubles. What was the key to your success in those areas?
DY: Everybody is trying to attract students, so you have to have a special niche in some ways. We’re known for our technology, but we’ve infused technology into our liberal arts curriculum, so it’s not just technology for technology’s sake; it’s a means to an end. It’s just a tool, and that’s how we have always viewed it — as a tool. We’ve planned what we have done; our movement has not been accidental, and when we’ve had fundraising campaigns, we’ve been quite strategic in what we were raising the money for. We were not doing a hit-or-miss. Our alumni became more involved in giving, and when you have a balanced balance sheet, and your finances are in order, you appeal to a variety of people who are prepared to support you. But it’s difficult to raise money when your balance sheets are not in order because people want to give to success. They don’t give you money just because you need money. They have personal things that motivate them, and you have to see if what you’re trying to do fits into what they are prepared to give to.
DI: Fundraising is increasingly a major component of a college president’s job. How have you seen the role of college president evolve during your career?
DY: This is not an easy job — running a small school with a budget that you have to go out and raise part of every year. The more you push and the more you achieve, the more is expected. And the expectations continue to rise, which means the job of the president gets harder and harder. The presidency now is not as it was in the ’50s and ’60s when presidents were like statespersons. Now, they’re expected to raise money, raise money, raise money and have strong programs and have philosophical positions. But if the money doesn’t come in, they are not too excited about you. So the job has changed over time, and it is difficult. You have to decide if that’s the race you want to run.

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