South Carolina State University has experienced considerable turmoil in recent months - leadership struggles, financial mismanagement, threats of accreditation loss, and a difficult relationship with the state of South Carolina, but more recently, the longstanding institution has had an increase in enrollment. Curious about this uptick in enrollment and the institution's weathering of a storm, I interviewed its interim president W. Franklin Evans. Evans came to South Carolina State from Virginia Union University, where he served as the Vice President for Academic Affairs. Virginia Union is also a historically Black institution.
The interview below provides insight into Evan's recovery process for South Carolina State University:
Marybeth: A lot of people would not have taken on the role of president at South Carolina State University. Are you a brave person? How do you deal with the fact that there is so much against you and the institution right now?
President Evans: We're going through a period of transition. I am not someone who backs down from challenges. I wasn't afraid but I will be perfectly honest with you it wasn't my doing, I really believe that this was a part of God's plan. I just happened to be the person who was commissioned to do this work. Also, my knowledge of the accreditation process gave people a sense of comfort.
Marybeth: I have read about the increased enrollment that South Carolina State University had this year. Most people would think that you would have a big drop in enrollment. I am just wondering how did you get an increase?
President Evans: We were very deliberate - and "we" means my staff, faculty, alumni, even students - in trying to get the message out that we are open for not just business but for success. We put together strategies, a whole public relations campaign, and our enrollment management folks got out there. We had a notecard campaign. We actually sat down and we sent note cards, personalized note cards to potential students as well as returning students. Our other concern was that those students who were here - we did not want them to leave amidst all of the drama that the media was putting out there. And so we, as I said were working extremely hard, calling people on the phone, going out to visit with alumni chapters, soliciting their support in helping us to recruit students. No one was working in isolation and we did not push this off on enrollment management, our Admissions folks and recruiters we all played a major role in working hard including myself.
Marybeth: That makes sense I was just wondering just how that happened because it's actually the opposite of what has typically has happened when HBCUs that find themselves in trouble.
President Evans: You're right. We used social media to promote the institutions. I amazed that I have seen myself on Facebook and other social media outlets. But our Public Relations and Media Department and University Relations - they worked hard at putting our successful stories out there. Little vignettes and snippets of me saying stuff, doing things and others as well and so this has been an all and all-out effort to get the word out.
Marybeth: I'd love to know a little bit about the way that you look at leadership. I have been studying HBCU leadership for two decades and I have seen a lot of different types of leaders and I am just wondering how you approach leading the institution. On a daily basis how are you leading the institution?
President Evans: I am a servant leader. I don't think that one size fits all; my style is much more eclectic in that I value collaboration and participatory types of engagement with folks. The other thing is I am focused on progressive thinking; some people give me credit for things that I don't necessarily see myself as but I'm strategic in what I do. I know that I can't do things by myself and so I try to surround myself with competent people and as I said earlier I don't see one size fits all, people are different and they bring their own set of skills to the table. My job as the leader is to identify those skills that are important and try to capture those things that are really relevant, meaningful and needed at the time. And so you will see my cabinet composed of individuals who are different and I don't want them to be "yes men" and "yes women." We have ongoing dialogues and sometimes debates as to "What is important?" We stay on purpose and everything that we do is guided and directed for results and outcomes. You know Claflin is right next door to us and so it doesn't take anything away from me to give President Henry Tisdale a call and others to rely on the expertise that they already have.
Marybeth: Good. Tell me about calling President Tisdale
President Evans: I did that even prior to the becoming President. I had already established relationships with Dr. Tisdale, even the President of our two-year college - Dr. Tobin - that is here in the city as well as some of the peer institutions that are surrounding Orangeburg.
Marybeth: What kind of advice have you received from the president of Claflin?
President Evans: He has given a lot of advice. One of the things that I am trying to do better is take care of myself. He told me that this is a job, a very stressful, but if I am not at the level that I need to be where I am taking care of myself, I won't do anyone any good - the institution or myself. And the other thing that he says is, "Don't feel the need to have all of the answers." You can call on other people, put your pride aside, and seek out the counsel of others. Now he did share with me that you couldn't share everything with everybody. You have to be mindful of that. It really is lonely at the top. The one thing that he did say that I thought was very comforting is "you were prepared for this all along." And so everything that you have experienced, that you have gone through over the years really it is all coming together to make you who you are and that you have what is needed to be successful and to do what needs to be done. I thought that was just wonderful.
Marybeth: Are there other people across the country that you have called on for support or advice and has anybody, does anybody stand out as giving you some really good advice?
President Evans: There are some other people who have been very, very helpful as well. Dr. Charlie Nelms is one example. Dr. Hugh Genny down at Alabama A&M he too is a former President of South Carolina State. Harold Martin at North Carolina A&T University has been extremely helpful and he is a fraternity brother and so he has another vested interest in me.
Marybeth: How are you managing your relationship with the state, which has at many times been hostile toward the institution? I am wondering how you are working on that, how are you repairing that relationship, how are you managing that, and what is the institution doing in that area?
President Evans: I have had to do quite a bit but I will tell you that we have been moving in a positive direction. Since coming on board I think that I have worked very hard to mend some relationships and certainly build upon others. The Governor has been extremely supportive. Right off the bat, I have spent a lot of time in Columbia meeting with the Senators as well as our House of Representatives. Jim Clyburn, in Congress, is a graduate of South Carolina State University and he has been very helpful and supportive. Tim Scott, the African American Senator from South Carolina, was our commencement speaker in May and he offered the same kind of support and encouragement. The relationship within the state has certainly improved. I think that I have stressed how relevant South Carolina State University is, certainly we have not gotten the attention and support that a lot of people feel that we should have gotten in the past. But I see it is shifting and it is changing and the Legislature sees the value that we not only have brought to the state but that we continue to bring and so the support will increase and certainly be much better.
Marybeth: There are many people in South Carolina that don't think that South Carolina State should remain open and have said discouraging, sometimes racist and derogatory things about the institution based on its performance or perceived performance. What do you do about them? How do you change the image of South Carolina State as it is right now, what do you do?
President Evans: Knowledge really is powerful. There are people who are certainly ignorant of what South Carolina State has done. Most recently in U.S. News and World Report, South Carolina State ranks as one of the best colleges. We're one of three institutions here in South Carolina that ranked in the top ten in the state. Of course, we are ranked highly among HBCUs. The Washington Monthly has ranked us highly as well. I know social mobility is one of the items that we excel on. A lot of times the media only focusses on the negative things and often times misquotes and misrepresents the institution and that is what people take away from it. I actually sat in the office of one of the legislators and he was spatting off some information that was just wrong. I let him know that we have a Nuclear Engineering Program that is fully accredited and that our students are securing jobs even before they graduate. We have produced more African American females in Nuclear Engineering than any other institution. I told him that our Speech Pathology Program is one where we have a waiting list. We are trying - despite the negativity that continues to go forth from the media - to put out positive messages - the truth about South Carolina State University.
Marybeth: I know some of the strengths of South Carolina State because I research areas where your institution over performs or disproportionately prepares people in various majors. However, most of the things that you've talked about I have not seen publicly. How can you get more of that information out? Whenever I ask alumni what is South Carolina State really good at they can't tell me anything and so they'll say, "I don't know." They just don't have an answer. So if I were to ask you that what is South Carolina State really good at? If you were going to talk to a group of students about going to college and you wanted to tell them specifically what your institution is good at what would it be?
President Evans: Okay, before I answer that let me tell you I don't disagree with you about alumni we have been working this summer to certainly make sure our alumni that they are equipped with the right messages. In fact we have designed something called the Bark Box because we are the Bulldogs. But the Bark Box is a recruiting tool for alumni that they will take back to their Chapters. It emphasizes and highlights those things that South Carolina State does and the things that we do well and so that's the message that they need to share with potential students and the community. And in that box, we have a lot of recruitment materials, we have the little armbands that students can wear, pencils, we have postcards with the top ten reasons why you should attend South Carolina State University. We have information about websites, we have postcards, and we have all of the things to equip alumni so that they can be excellent ambassadors for the Institution.
President Evans: You were asking if I came upon a student what is the message that I would tell them about what is it that we do here? Our Industrial Engineering Program is excellent. And we're not talking about engineering technology we're talking about pure engineering and so we are a top producer of minority engineers particularly nuclear. I mentioned Speech Pathology because that is a phenomenal program - we're one of two programs in the state. We have always been a teacher education institution throughout the state of South Carolina. We have educated, not only teachers but also superintendents and counselors throughout the state and the region. We've got people in Georgia, North Carolina and even Florida who have been in our programs. I have to highlight our Military Science Program because we are the West Point of the South in that we have produced large numbers of African American officers in the US Army; roughly 19 Generals that have come out of South Carolina State University.
Marybeth: Could you tell me a little bit about what your plan is to increase enrollment even more the following year?
President Evans: Well we do have a plan and we have identified some priorities for this year and of course one of the priorities was to certainly meet our enrollment goal and exceed it and that is what did. You are well aware that we base our budget on a number that we thought was much more reasonable in light of all of the media play that we have gotten. We wanted to make sure that we did everything in our power to make our enrollment goal and we did and as I said we exceeded it.
The other big thing of course is that we've got to make sure that we satisfy all of the standards with SACS (our accreditor) and remove our probation. This continues to be a major priority for us. We have no options with that and so everything that we do regarding funding, regarding the budget, regarding our finances, we do it in light of the fact that SACS accreditation is a must. We can't have any slip ups with our budget and with our finances. We have to show our accrediting body as well as the public that we are good managers of our finances and that we have systems in place to ensure that. We've got to generate additional funds. Alumni have been extremely supportive now and in fact, our alumni giving is up by some 54% over the past year.
Marybeth: How did you do that?
President Evans: We are trying to instill in our alumni a sense of confidence that we know what we're doing. Certainly motivating, encouraging them to get out there behind us and to be much more proactive than reactive is essential. You've been around the HBCU circuit for a while and you know that the status for many of our HBCUs is that we wait until things happen and then we react. It's a new day, it's a new day. We can't expect others to do for us what we won't do for ourselves. I have been giving this message to our alumni every day. They've caught on. They are getting up and doing some things. We had a conference this summer and the alumni Chapters were challenged to each come with up with $25,000. Several of them did, others came close but we raised a lot of money this summer and they're continuing to give to scholarships. So they are really coming out of the woodwork and moving up to show the Legislatures that South Carolina State alumni mean business.
Marybeth: Are there any other things that you would want me to know?
President Evans: Well, one of the things that I am kind of proud of with the new students coming in - we're not a Morehouse, we're not a Spelman - but we are still trying to instill similar values in our students. We want our students to know that by coming to South Carolina State they made a wonderful decision and so we're going to nurture and support them and make them into graduates and one of the focuses is our core value. I've named it O-SPICE. The "S" stands for service. The "P" is something a little different it stands for philanthropy. Most schools don't focus on philanthropy and instilling that value in students is important. We want you to understand the importance of giving back. So even as freshmen we're expecting that students are going to be giving at the very least - a dollar. If we can get a dollar, two dollars, five dollars from each student to start the next year off we're instilling the importance of philanthropy. The "I" of course is for integrity. "C" for collaboration - no man is an island and we're teaching the students the value of working together. And last but not least is the "E" which is for excellence. Everything that we do is geared towards excellence. Being the best that we can, producing the best products that we can. When those students walk across the stage and we hand them that degree it means something and we're expecting them to go out and represent in a big way. And so pretty good isn't enough we have to be excellent in everything that we do and so that's our focus - O-SPICE.
Marybeth: Thank you for sharing your vision and your approach to overcoming the challenges at South Carolina State.