Dorothy Cowser Yancy was officially president of Johnson C. Smith University barely a year when the MacArthur Foundation came calling. They're the folks best known for giving “genius” grants to unsuspecting individuals for their innovative and creative work.
In 1996, the MacArthur Foundation put its influential spotlight on colleges and universities. Johnson C. Smith became one of six liberal arts schools nationwide to receive a $750,000 grant for showing a certain “genius” in how they educate students. Dr. Yancy has said she screamed with delight at the news. “It just puts you in a whole new class,” she said of the recognition.
Those words could sum up Dr. Yancy's achievement. As JCSU president for more than 13 years, she moved the historically black college into a “whole new class.”
Her fund-raising prowess often gets the big spotlight. She has helped the school exceed the goals set in two capital campaigns. The last one topped its $75 million goal by at least $5.7 million. And under her leadership the school's endowment grew from $13.8 million to $57 million.
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But JCSU also soared academically. The rate of JCSU graduates getting a job or getting into graduate school rose from 27.6 percent in 1992-93 to 85 percent in 2005-06. JCSU has been ranked one of best comprehensive Southern colleges and one of the best college values (U.S. News & World Report) among the top 50 colleges and universities for African Americans (Black Enterprise) and one of the 50 most-wired small colleges (Yahoo).
When JCSU was named to the “most wired” list, Dr. Yancy achieved one of her signature goals. In 2000, JCSU became the first historically black college or university to issue laptops to each student.
The rest of Charlotte also benefitted from her tenacity. The city became the site of the CIAA basketball tournament in 2006 largely because she pursued it for nearly a decade. It has brought tens of millions of dollars to the city.
Dr. Yancy acknowledges critics who say she didn't do enough to strengthen ties between the school and the city. Building financial and academic stability at JCSU took precedence. “I came here to build a school,” she told Observer reporter David Perlmutt. “I never lost sight of my goals.”
Her strong legacy enables her successor, former Coker College provost and chief operating officer Ron Carter, to build those stronger ties. He should do so.
More important, her legacy enables Smith graduates to say something she could only hope for in 1995 – that they “received an absolutely superb education at Smith.” To her great credit, they can.