The Secret’s Out

Oct 01, 2019

Claflin is not well-known outside South Carolina, but the liberal arts institution stands out among seven other HBCUs in the state and is raising its national profile

By Marjorie Valbrun

For those in the know, Claflin University has always been a bright spot in a landscape of bad news about dwindling resources, decreased state funding and declining enrollment at many colleges that predominantly serve black students.

To the uninformed, the private liberal arts institution in Orangeburg, S.C., is just one of many small, indistinguishable historically black colleges, or HBCUs, struggling to keep their doors open and remain relevant at a time when some question if such colleges, or at least as many of them, are still needed. (There are eight HBCUs in South Carolina alone.) Never mind that Claflin is financially secure, its enrollment numbers stable and its reputation strong.

This conflict between perception and reality was always top of mind for Henry Tisdale. He spent considerable energy pushing back on the misperceptions even as Claflin reached one milestone after another, meeting and sometimes exceeding goals big and small that he set for the university when he became president 25 years ago. By the time Tisdale retired last June, the secret was decidedly out -- and others had taken note.

Today Claflin, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, is among the most highly regarded HBCUs in the country. It has a freshman retention rate of 78 percent and a job placement rate of 86 percent, among other good academic outcomes.

Its average four-year graduation rate for the last five years is 40 percent, and the average six-year graduation rate for the same period is 50.4 percent, which is higher than the average for HBCUs.

Enrollment has also climbed steadily over the decades. The university had 1,023 students enrolled when Tisdale arrived in 1994; that number had more than doubled to 2,172 by the time he left.

As Claflin’s reputation has risen, outside benefactors have come calling with offers to help build on the university’s momentum. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation gave the university $1 million in unsolicited grants to help it revise and improve its general education program by aligning the School of Humanities and Social Sciences’ curriculum more closely with workforce needs. The old program required students to complete 46 credits; the new program requires 39 credits and gives students more flexibility to customize their courses and add minors and certificate programs based on their career goals.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lilly Foundation are also supporting various initiatives on campus to help more students graduate, better prepare them for careers and improve their employment prospects.

Tisdale said representatives of the foundations told him they had been tracking the university’s progress and wanted to encourage its efforts.

“They’re recognizing the climb of the university and the student success of the university,” he said. “They not only want to support us financially but to partner with us to share what we do with other institutions.”

He noted that Claflin enrolls many first-generation students from families with limited financial means and who are eligible for federal student aid. Roughly 40 percent of the students fall into that category, according to the university’s institutional research office.

“These students may be academically challenged when they arrived at Claflin, but the foundations look at our outcomes, our high retention, graduation and jobs placement rates,” Tisdale said.

Satisfied alumni have also been paying attention. They helped Claflin become the leading HBCU in alumni giving, a distinction the university has held for the last 20 years. It was also the first HBCU to reach 50 percent in alumni giving. (It hit an all-time high of 52.2 percent in 2013.)

“I think this stems from the fact that our alumni are very pleased with the education they receive from the university,” said Tisdale, a mathematician who graduated from Claflin and received his doctoral degree from Dartmouth College. “We also spend a lot of time educating our students about philanthropy while they’re still students, and about giving back and serving before they leave the university.”

Claflin’s endowment grew from $7 million to $27 million during Tisdale’s tenure. The endowment is modest compared to those of more well-known HBCU powerhouses such as Howard University ($688.6 million in 2018), Spelman College ($389.2 million in 2018) and Morehouse College ($145 million in 2018). But Tisdale says those institutions had very long head starts.

“They’re in a league by themselves,” he said. “They didn’t acquire their endowments in the last 20 years. They had the opportunity to accumulate those funds over many decades.”

Harry L. Williams, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents and supports public HBCUs and other predominantly black institutions, or PBIs, largely credits Tisdale for the university Claflin is today.

“He has created an institution that can be a model for other small private institutions, and not just HBCUs,” Williams said. “The key word is 'stability,' the stability he brought to the institution. What he has been able to do is create a strong culture of sustainability. When you can keep people focused on the mission at hand, it keeps things moving. When parents visit colleges campuses, that’s what they’re looking for.”

Tisdale did this in part by getting alumni to invest in the university, Williams said.

“Students are your greatest ambassadors, and if they’re happy and satisfied, they’re going to promote the university,” Williams said. “They’re going to be your biggest advocates and help recruit students to your institution. And his being an alumnus of the institution also played a critical role.”

Tisdale said he got plenty of help building up the university not just from alumni but also the university’s governing board.

“I was very fortunate to have a Board of Trustees that worked in partnership with me,” he said. “They were true leaders in fundraising at the university and contributing to its success.”

It also helped to have the backing of faculty and administrators.

“He’s the real deal,” Karl Wright, Claflin’s provost and chief academic officer, said of Tisdale“I worked at South Carolina State University, our next-door neighbor, for some time. Claflin was not even on the map then -- it was just a nice, small school. He made Claflin relevant, and he made it special.”

Wright cited various rankings placing the university in the top tier of HBCUs nationally and also non-HBCUs in the region. He credits Tisdale's leadership style, the academic programs he built and the administrators he charged with helping him run the university. 

“He was a catalyst for all of that,” Wright said. “We are now far and away considered the best HBCU in South Carolina -- there’s no one even close. We became the relevant benchmark for a lot of other HBCUs and non-HBCUs. I can’t tell you the number of times we've gotten calls from people at other colleges asking if they can come to Claflin to see what we’re doing.”

Williams, a former president of Delaware State University, a public HBCU, said Tisdale’s relationship with the board played a large role in his effectiveness as president.

“If you have the right connection between the board and the president, it’s amazing what you can do,” said Williams. “The right chairman of the board and the right president aligned together always moves the university forward. It’s the key to the success of any institution of higher learning.”

Williams worked closely with Tisdale when their respective universities became part of nine HBCUs to take part in a Gates Foundation initiative to improve student outcomes and erase race and income gaps by addressing poor academic and personal support, inflexible and ineffective learning pathways, student loan debt, and other barriers.

Although Claflin and Delaware State were part of the initial core group in the early stages of the HBCUs Pursuing Transformative Change initiative in 2014, other colleges and universities, including large state colleges and state higher ed systems, later joined to form what would become The Frontier Set, a partnership of 29 colleges and universities and two state systems from across the country representing a diverse cross-section of higher education.

“I continue to acknowledge his leadership smarts,” Williams said of Tisdale.

Williams is not alone in his praise for Tisdale.

“The Claflin University motto proclaims that ‘The World Needs Visionaries,’ and in his years as president, Dr. Henry Tisdale proved himself fully deserving of the high standard the motto sets,” Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, said in an email.

Lomax noted that Tisdale, who is a member of the UNCF’s Board of Directors, established the university’s Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics, the Freshman College, the Professional and Continuing Studies Center, and the Honors College, which has higher admissions requirements.

The university has also launched fully online undergraduate and graduate programs, and two years ago started an R.N.-to-B.S.N. program, becoming the first and only HBCU in the state to do so.

“Under his leadership, Claflin’s growth and progress were rapid and remarkable,” Lomax said. “The student population doubled, and so did campus size, and applicants hailed from 26 states and 15 countries.”

As chairman of UNCF’s member college presidents, Tisdale “also helped shape the course not only of Claflin, but of all private HBCUs,” Lomax said.

Some might argue that Claflin’s performance should not be surprising, or for that matter, even newsworthy.

report released in June by the UNCF’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute concludes that “HBCUs perform far better than their sizes and resources would lead one to expect” when it comes to enrolling and graduating students.

The report argues that these institutions merit more federal and state support, as well as investments of private corporations and philanthropic foundations, at a time of diminishing public funding for colleges.

UNCF, in partnership with the Lilly Endowment Inc., joined with 24 HBCUs and PBIs in 2015 to establish the UNCF Career Pathways Initiative, which helps these institutions strengthen student career outcomes “by increasing the number of undergraduates who transition to meaningful jobs in their chosen fields upon graduation,” according to a UNCF-CPI fact sheet.

The seven-year pilot program is designed to boost participating institutions’ capacity to work more closely with students and employers and better integrate education and career preparation through stronger internships, more effective experiential learning opportunities, career counseling and other activities.

Nine of the 24 institutions are in three-institution clusters that received up to $6 million each and are collaborating, as well as working individually, to achieve those goals. Claflin, which is located about an hour from Voorhees College and Benedict College, both HBCUs, is leading the Carolina cluster.

“From our perspective, one of the things that are really, really important is building employer relationships, so we worked early on building up two employer councils of private- and public-sector employers that gave us resources, guidance and insight as all three schools have modified their general education programs,” said Cathy Franklin, executive director of the Carolina cluster.

She said Claflin reorganized various seminars as a result and is also freeing up space in the curriculum so that students can add more courses in their field of studies that give them “21st-century competencies.”

Franklin said being among the universities chosen “was an exciting achievement” and that Tisdale was instrumental in making it happen.

“I loved working with him,” she said. “He was very open and supportive.”

Lezli Baskerville, president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, a membership and advocacy association of all HBCUs and PBIs, described Tisdale’s accomplishments as “his success sauce.”

Baskerville said Tisdale has shared his five-point "Claflin Model of Excellence," or CME, with 12 freshman classes of presidents and chancellors averaging 50 HBCU and PBI leaders at the association’s annual Presidential Peer Seminars. He also mentored many freshman presidents and chancellors.

“Another ingredient in President Tisdale’s CME was his intentionality in making the cornerstones of Claflin, the faith and education liberation that historically anchored HBCUs, while simultaneously growing a model, nimble university, that was globally connected and technologically driven," she said in an email, also noting that few people realize that Claflin University has a leading international program.

Dwaun J. Warmack was named the ninth president of Claflin last June. He was previously president of Harris-Stowe State University in Missouri.

"My aspiration is to honor President Tisdale's amazing legacy, by continuing the Claflin standard as a beacon of excellence in higher education for future generations to come," he said in a university press release.


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