Formidable leader bids JCSU farewell

If you happened to hear a ruckus over the weekend in the clock tower of Johnson C. Smith University, there was no need for alarm. It was only Dorothy Cowser Yancy performing one of the final acts of her presidency, which ends today after 14 years.

After all the boxes were packed and office keys turned in, she was determined to climb into the tower and scribble her name on one of the wooden rafters or walls – as hundreds of students have done since the early 1900s.

“I didn't do it as a student,” said Yancy, 64, a 1964 JCSU graduate. “I'm making sure I do it as president.”

As the school's first female president, she oversaw dramatic improvements to the west Charlotte campus.

She was widely lauded for her fundraising skills, growing the school's endowment from $13.8 million to $57 million. During her tenure, applications rose 300 percent, historic Biddle Hall was restored, and the campus was wired for Internet access.

In 2000, JCSU also became the first historically black university to be labeled a “laptop” campus, issuing IBM Thinkpads to all its students.

Yancy is moving back to Atlanta, where she taught history at Georgia Tech before she came to Charlotte. She plans to be an education consultant. Her successor, Coker College Provost Ron Carter, starts Tuesday.

Last week, with boxes of plaques and crystal bowls still stacked high in her fourth-floor Biddle Hall office, Yancy reflected on a range of topics. Read what she said on page 4A

Q: You're in the last days as president of this university. What's that like?

I haven't had time to think about it. I've still had meetings to take care of. I've been working on the enrollment for the fall, trying to make sure the students who applied are getting the letters and information they need so they'll come. There's a lot of competition for these students. I'm making sure everything's in for the grants we've applied for.

Q: You could have coasted. Why didn't you?

If you don't keep the process moving and continue competing for grants, then the next person has a problem – they've got to start over. This school invested in me a long time ago; now I have an investment in it. So I will do my job until the day I leave.

Q: You have looked out these windows for 14 years. What will you miss seeing?

The students. I have a sweet spot for students – they're the present and the future. From here, I can see them coming out of the student union. I can hear them. The opportunities to get to shape and mold them has been an awesome privilege. And an awesome responsibility.

Q: In 2008, what is the role of historically black universities?

I always bristle when I'm asked that. No one's ever asked Notre Dame why they exist. Schools like Johnson C. Smith have critical roles – to provide a quality education for students who seek one. It just so happens we have a large number of black students who apply.

There's no reason for it not to exist. HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) represent only 4 percent of all higher education institutions. But they graduate approximately 30 percent of all African American students and 50 percent of African American teachers.

Q: In recent years, all schools have vigorously recruited the best African American students. What's best for black students?

I think it depends on the student. I don't think every school suits every student. Some students thrive at large, state-supported universities. Some students need small schools like this one that nurture. We have students who would do well anywhere – but they also need the kind of encouragement that they wouldn't find at a big school.

Q: As some historically black colleges struggle, how were you able to strengthen JCSU's stature and financial security?

It's always money. I'm a country girl; I grew up on a farm (in Alabama) and understand the value of a dollar. I know how to save. I know that you don't spend more than you bring in.

I had a great foundation to build on and I was determined to take this school to another level. I think we did. We've worked very hard to build the infrastructure here and a quality faculty, and create a campus that is aesthetically pleasing to get parents and students to come give us a look.

Q: Your predecessor was known for building stronger ties to Charlotte. You weren't. Why?

I was criticized for not being as involved in Charlotte. But I was involved as much as I could be. I've had to spend a considerable amount of time raising money outside of Charlotte. Sixty-plus percent of this school's money comes from tuition. The rest has to be raised. If you sit up here behind a desk and try to raise it, it won't get done. The money comes from the federal government, from agencies and foundations in New York and other cities. I lived out of a suitcase off and on for 14 years.

I came here to build a school. I never lost sight of my goals.