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Right Person, Right Time

Right Person, Right Time

As chancellor of Fayetteville State University, Dr. T.J. Bryan leads the University of North Carolina System’s second oldest institution with confidence, energy and accessibility.

By Eleanor Lee Yates

Fayetteville, N.C.
When Dr. T.J. Bryan was interviewing for the position of chancellor of Fayetteville State University several years ago, she looked down with horror, realizing that she was wearing a black jacket with an obviously navy skirt. Oh well. It didn’t matter, she rationalized. She was already comfortable in her role as vice chancellor for academic and student affairs for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, and didn’t feel any pressure to leave the post. But when Fayetteville State called, she figured a chancellorship opportunity was at least worth an interview.

“I didn’t expect anything to come of it,” Bryan says of the interview.
Despite the fashion faux pas, she was offered the job. Several of her friends tried to talk her out of taking the position, with one colleague even telling her that she was “too good to go to a historically Black college.”

But the more she thought about it, the more she liked the idea. On July 1, 2003, Bryan became chancellor of the second oldest institution in the University of North Carolina System. 

“Part of it was that I felt I wanted to give back to historically Black institutions. I felt I owed a debt and I was on a mission to help others,” says Bryan. 

The energetic Bryan hit the campus at a gallop.

“We were looking for someone very smart, articulate and a self-starter who understood the need for fundraising,” says Nathan T. Garrett, chairman of FSU’s board of trustees. “She realized very early that in order to grow and compete, we needed to embrace new programs. She went at this aggressively.”

Bryan’s high standards now permeate every aspect of FSU. It did not take long for her to form strong bonds of loyalty.

“Even with our sports programs, she is like a super-mom. She paces the floor. She wants every shot to go in, every pass to be complete,” Garrett says.

But her arrival wasn’t met with open arms by everyone. A few FSU supporters grumbled about having a woman at the helm — a first for the university.

“Unfortunately there are still some Neanderthals among us,” Garrett says. But the solid support she’s generated on campus and around the community has quieted the critics.

Embracing the Community
After more than two years as chancellor, Bryan’s supporters say “the proof is in the pudding.”

“Her leadership style fits perfectly,” says Carole Battle, president of the university’s National Alumni Association. “She is open. She has strength and character. One thing I really like is that whatever she says she will do, she does it.”

Battle says Bryan’s first concern is meeting the needs of students. And in her short tenure at FSU, a lot has been accomplished. Last August, FSU was among 20 universities featured in USA Today for creating a culture of fostering student success.

Fayetteville, located in eastern North Carolina, is very much a military town. Fort Bragg Army Base, home of the Army’s  Special Operations unit, and Pope Air Force Base are both located in the area. FSU is large enough that the chancellor could easily spend the day behind closed doors, stuck in meetings. Bryan, however, makes a point most days to walk around the campus and talk to students, who generally greet her with, “Hi, Chancellor.”

Battle, a retired school principal, recalls an alumni function that she attended with Bryan. A current student spoke to the alumni about
why he liked FSU, then unexpectedly complimented Bryan, saying “You have no idea when you smile and talk to us, how you touch our lives.”
“She is so right for FSU,” Battle says.

The Value of Education
Thelma Jane Bryan was born in the rural community of Parkton, Md. Her father farmed, her mother stayed home to raise five daughters, though she worked for a while as a domestic. Bryan says her mother instilled in her a sense that she was special, helping her develop her characteristic confidence. Though neither of her parents completed high school, they stressed the value of education and hard work to their children. Bryan’s mother always hoped that her daughter might become a secretary in a respected office, never dreaming she would one day head a university.

Although a good student, Bryan ended up changing her major five times while an undergraduate at Morgan State University. She worked full time at the National Security Agency and still graduated as valedictorian of her college class, earning a degree in English. She continued on in graduate school at Morgan State, where she earned a master’s degree in English. Afterward, she received a Ford Foundation National Fellowship to attend the University of Maryland, where she earned a doctorate in English language and literature.

In 1982 Bryan joined the English faculty at Baltimore’s Coppin State University. Some of her accomplishments include implementing an honors program and establishing one of the country’s 14 original Ronald McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement programs. While at Coppin she served as chair of the English department and dean of arts and sciences. In 1998 Bryan was selected by the 13-campus University System of Maryland to become its associate vice chancellor for academic affairs. Some of her work led to the creation of a governor’s task force, and to the passage of legislation that provided a college-intervention program and guaranteed financial assistance to low-income students. In 2002, she accepted the vice chancellor position in Pennsylvania, coming to Fayetteville a year later.

Since Bryan’s arrival, FSU has achieved several milestones. The fall 2005 enrollment was a record high of approximately 6,100 students, a 12 percent increase over the previous year. The university offers more online classes, resulting in a 59 percent increase in online enrollment. FSU notched a 14 percent enrollment increase at its off-campus sites. The university has also focused more on dual enrollment through the state’s community college system, as North Carolina’s four-year system has expanded articulation agreements with community colleges. FSU has coordinators who work with area community colleges to advise prospective transfers.

Marketing of the university has increased through a series of billboards, radio and television spots around the region. Bryan routinely tours cities throughout the state, bringing along students to promote FSU.

“I tell them if they don’t choose FSU, please go to college somewhere,” she says of the high school students she meets. 

The university has also made gains in its retention rate. This fall 75.4 percent of freshmen returned to FSU for their sophomore year, a 2.3 percent increase from 2004 and the highest second-year retention rate in more than 10 years. The graduation rate is also edging up. In 2004-2005, FSU graduated 832 students, compared to 803 in 2003. 

Bryan initiated the Freshman Year Initiative, in which advisors and tutors closely monitor and assist young students. The program has grown so popular that tutoring sessions sometimes spill out into lobbies. Through a $400,000 building renovation, FSU now has a state-of-the-art language lab. And new this year is the Sophomore Year Initiative, designed for what Bryan refers to as the sophomore slump. Instructors and advisors sound an early alert when students show signs of trouble in and outside of class.

“We are very proactive,” says Bryan. “We don’t wait for the student to ask for help.”

Of the 148 high school students in last summer’s bridge program, CHEER, all of them enrolled at the university this past fall. CHEER, which stands for “Creating Higher Expectations for Educational Readiness,” offers pre-college academic preparation. Students in CHEER, and another retention program, Bronco Men of Distinction, have actually chalked up higher freshman GPAs than FSU students who boasted higher academic scores in high school. The program has expanded, but Bryan wants it even bigger.

“I want to see a thousand students in this program,” she says. 
There are other features aimed toward students’ academic success as well. FSU’s honors program waives tuition costs for top students, many of whom come from other parts of the country. Currently 109 students reside in the honors dorm and participate in many educational programs. 

During her first year, Bryan made some changes in vice chancellor positions. Although some faculty took early retirement during the transition, a total of 130 new faculty have been hired since Bryan arrived. Of the full-time faculty, 94 percent have their doctoral or first-time professional degrees. Because of additional faculty, the student/faculty ratio decreased from 23:1 to 21:1.

“It is a joy to see her interaction with the faculty at strategic planning sessions,” says Garrett. “They feel the freedom to express themselves. There is joviality and seriousness. She has captured their hearts.”

Growing and Changing
As a military town, Fayetteville has always had more of a global flavor than most cities in the region. Now FSU is putting stronger emphasis on international education. The university has signed Memoranda of Understanding with universities in Japan, India and China to initiate student exchange programs. In another new initiative, FSU is partnering with the two-year Hiroshima College of Foreign Languages in Japan to bring students from that institution to FSU for their final two years of college. That program is scheduled to start in the fall of 2006.

Since her arrival, Bryan has pushed hard for a four-year nursing program because of the region’s growing health care needs. Also, the University of North Carolina board of governors has approved bachelor’s programs in forensic science, biotechnology, management information systems and a new master of arts in teaching program.

She campaigned vigorously and eventually secured funding for a new building to house the nursing program. The building is scheduled to be completed in 2008. A teacher education building is a future capital project.  

Bryan’s enthusiasm includes fundraising, and she attends alumni functions throughout the state. In 2004-2005, FSU received its highest level of contributions, $1.1 million. Officials say one spark was Bryan’s suggestion to ask alumni and friends to match the $136 cost of the land for the Howard School back in 1867, the institution which later became FSU.  

Though still a historically Black institution, the faces of FSU are changing, with an increasing number of White and Hispanic students. This has not gone unnoticed. 

FSU has seen a 12 percent jump in White enrollees this year and a 10 percent increase in Hispanics. Asian student enrollment has gone up 33 percent since 2004, a figure that will almost certainly increase when the Hiroshima College program begins next year.

“Some don’t like this. But we are committed to progress and will embrace the community,” Bryan says. “FSU will never lose its history and core values, but we are welcoming to others.” 

Bryan has published numerous articles on early 20th-century African-American female poets. She has held a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for College Teachers and has been awarded a Governor’s Citation from the State of Maryland. She is a member of the Wachovia Bank Board of Directors, the Central Intelligence Agency Board of Visitors and numerous other nonprofit and professional boards.

Though her work follows her everywhere, she relies on a large network of family and friends to help her keep life in perspective. But even in her personal life, it’s hard to escape conversations about leading a higher education institution. Bryan’s sister, Dr. Myrtle B. Dorsey, is chancellor of Baton Rouge Community College in Louisiana.

Bryan says has learned a lot during her two years as chancellor.

“You can’t do the job concerned about pleasing everyone or being afraid of anyone,” she says. The two years at the helm of FSU have helped Bryan develop keener political skills and a thicker skin. When she confronts those who object to an initiative or project, she often names them to a committee, which she hopes will give them more insight. She values dissenting opinions, but won’t hesitate to follow her own instincts when she feels something is in the best interests of her students. But she says she “doesn’t lose sleep over it” when a situation is out of her control.

Bryan’s advice to new chancellors coming into their jobs: “Always remember that universities exist to serve students,” she says. 

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