(Marcey Evans graduated from The LeMoyne-Owen College Summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities/ Journalism degree in December 2007. This conversation with LOC President Johnnie B. Watson is the first segment of a two-part look at the college as it celebrates its sesquicentennial.)
Marcey Evans: The LeMoyne-Owen College has been around for 150 years! Wow, that's amazing. But I want to start with the nuts and bolts. How many years have you been LeMoyne-Owen's president?
President Johnnie B. Watson: Since August 2006. I was interim president for two years and was unanimously selected president in 2008. I'm glad they (college's board of trustees) kept me around that long!
ME: So they didn't have to think hard about that decision – unanimously?
President Watson: It was unanimous, the interim appointment, as well as the (presidential) appointment at the college. When you're unanimously selected by your board, you don't go in with problems. So I didn't inherit a divided board and that was a good thing.
ME: That makes the job easier, but you still had your work cut out for you. You had a great board behind you but your leadership was noteworthy, to say the least.
President Watson: It was cut out for us because the college was in trouble. The college was in so much trouble that the accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, put us on probation for fiscal instability. We just didn't have any money in the bank. At that time, we had a cumulative deficit of $1.5 million. We no longer have a cumulative deficit. We have a composite score. A composite score is what institutions use to lend you money.
ME: Is it measured on a scale?
President Watson: The highest is 3.0, and we have a 2.9. (It's a financial stability scale.) The United Negro College Fund, UNCF, conducted a study of its member institutions and, of the 38 member institutions, LeMoyne-Owen ranked eleventh in fiscal health. So, by all criteria, we're fiscally on our feet. And that's a statement for any historically black college to make.
ME: I'm in amazement right now, trying to take it all in because I was a student when the morale slumped. We (students and faculty) all had our eyes on you. You really had your work cut out for you and we wondered how you were going to meet the challenges that we knew you faced. One thing I can say as a former student under your presidency, you came in with transparency that we were not familiar with.
President Watson: You could write this story without interviewing me! (Laughs)
ME: (Laughs) Yes, we were all watching. Things were different before you but when you came, you opened your doors. You had an open-door policy and we were amazed by that. As journalism students, we were talking and we wanted to come into your office and ask some questions! So, how did you face those numbers – the deficit? What was your plan?
President Watson: I give the board credit for selecting me because I had experience. Having served as a superintendent of a large urban school system, I had a whole lot of political experience and a whole lot of battles under my belt. As a member of the board of trustees at the time, I was also aware of the problems on the campus. One was the faculty. The faculty had taken a vote of "no confidence" in the president and vice president and, being aware of that, my first day on the job I met with the president of the faculty organization and asked the president of the faculty organization to appoint two faculty members to serve on the president's cabinet. That was unprecedented. Other presidents, who had been college presidents longer than I had, told me it wouldn't work... My leadership style is one of shared decision-making. I truly believe in participatory management.
ME: I want to put a pin in that – shared decision-making and participatory management. I'm sure they (faculty) had a lot to say. At first, when they felt like they didn't have a voice, we felt their energy in the classroom. I think it reflects when a person feels as though they're not being heard. We (students) didn't know what was going on, but we could feel something. So how did adding faculty to your cabinet turn the tide?
President Watson: My slogan was "A part of – not apart from." That's a slogan I use to start almost every campus meeting, letting everyone know that they're a part of – not apart from – the decision-making process.
Also, I am accessible to students. A former student contacted me once for a recommendation and visit. She said she heard I was very accessible and came to test it. The secretary told her, "He's free now. Would you like to walk in?" She walked into my office and we had a conversation. The word gets around. Students know they can come in and sometimes they come in very frustrated, but I listen, even when I have to direct them back to their department chair. Many times, they'll say they'll drop it, after talking to me.
Sometimes, people just want the opportunity to vent and to interact with the top person. My work style is such that I have time to do that. When you look at my desk, you won't see my desk cluttered with papers that belong on someone else's desk.
ME: But how? How do you do that?
President Watson: I've learned how. When I became superintendent, I made the decision to visit every school in the system each year that I was superintendent. So, I had to plan my work. When I get the morning's mail, it will usually be on the proper desk by the evening's mail. People don't mind doing their jobs, if you give it to them in a timely manner. Some administrators get information that needs to be routed to someone else, but they won't route it. They will have it two weeks and send it to the (correct) person 24 hours before it's due. I'm not going to do that. If it gets on my desk today and I'm in the office, it will get off my desk today.
ME: (Laughs) You make is sound so simple.
President Watson: Look how long I've been doing it! (Laughs) I learned a lot from Dr. Willie Herenton and his leadership style, when I worked as deputy superintendent for Memphis City Schools. I did the day-to-day operations of the system... I really acquired the skills by the volume of the work. I had to move it quickly. So, I give him credit for entrusting me with that opportunity...
When you think about the past of LeMoyne-Owen College, we have had some trying situations. We have had a yellow fever epidemic, we have had a major race riot, we've had students arrested during the sit-in demonstrations of the late 1950s and early 1960s, we have survived two world wars, we have survived the Great Depression, we survived a major fire, and certainly – like most historically black colleges and universities – we have had to endure times when our fiscal health was not as good.
Before the days of integration, we didn't have a problem raising money as much as we do today. I worked at Rhodes College as a professor for eight years. In that time, not a single person asked me, "Why does that predominately white institution still need to exist?" Every year I've been president of LeMoyne-Owen College and I approach people for money, I have to justify the existence of this historically black college...
As a student, LeMoyne-Owen prepared me so well that I became superintendent of one of the largest urban school districts in the country and returned as the eleventh president of the college. That summarizes our past.
ME: One thing that I really appreciated about LeMoyne-Owen was that I learned about my history as an African American. I learned about those things when I stepped on this campus. So when you talk about the relevance of LeMoyne-Owen, I see how you could build a case from here to anywhere. But you listed some things I had no clue about. I didn't know about a yellow fever epidemic. That is amazing to me! Students being arrested?
President Watson: Our students were leaders. They were on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement... But as a result of the past, I can truly say that our present is very good. It's prosperous... I'm pleased to report today that we have money in the bank.
ME: In addition to money in the bank, financial gifts have been given to the college recently, not to mention the new dormitory under construction. You can see what you've been saying; it's tangible. So, in your presidential assessment, where would you say the college is today, in the present?
President Watson: In the present, the college is fiscally sound, more now than all the years I've been affiliated with the college as a student, a member of the board of trustees, and now as president. We just had a reaffirmation visit from SACS and I couldn't be more pleased. The recommendations were things we could easily address. We had zero findings in our audit we submitted to SACS.
We are also building a residence facility that hasn't been built in years on this campus, which will hold more than 336 students. Also, another thing that built morale was a raise given to faculty. When they offered me the presidency and salary, I told the board that was unacceptable to me. I requested around $28,000 less. Once they readily approved that, I asked them to match it and said I wanted to give a one-time bonus to faculty and staff, who have not had raises in years.
ME: I have never heard of anything like that.
President Watson: I truly believe that when you're blessed, you should give something back. They received $500 per person. It was meaningful. Also, we gave a three-percent salary raise and this year, we have given four percent raises across the board. That's the "present" of the college. Robert Lipscomb, the board, and I have been a good team to bring revenue into the college... So, the present state of the college is healthy, extremely healthy. We're no longer on life support at this college. We don't need anyone to bail us out now; we need support to help us continue to grow the college.
ME: Another thing I've seen is that enrollment has grown.
President Watson: It has grown from 550 in 2006 to more than 1,000 students today... I'm acutely aware that our students can attend any other institution of higher learning. But what do we have to offer? It's a fact that students are nurtured at historically black colleges. I've loved interacting with students. Last year, we had a student to die, unfortunately. The family wanted a representative from the college, and I let them know that I would represent the college. They were so pleased that they stopped to embrace me...
I truly have a vested interest in this college. I grew up across the street from the college in the LeMoyne Gardens Housing Projects with five sisters. All five of my sisters attended the college and became educators, so this school means a lot to me.
ME: What are you hearing from students? What is the morale like? What is staff saying? How do they feel?
President Watson: Now, faculty says we don't have anything to fight. Our president has made us a part of. One of the board members told me that I'm making it hard for the next president. I said that if the new president doesn't treat everyone with respect and dignity, it should be hard for him or her.
I come to work because I want to come. When you come to work because you love coming to work, it makes a big difference. When you have a board of trustees who are not fighting you but working with you, it makes all the difference in the world. I don't have to battle with the board of trustees or the faculty organization. We work together.
ME: What are your goals for the future of the college? Where do you see it going from here?
President Watson: My goals for the college are established by the board of trustees, but I really see nothing but continued growth for the college because I know the board will not bring in another president and let him or her go backwards. It's just not going to happen. The faculty, staff, and student body are not going to let it happen.
So, the future for LeMoyne-Owen College is bright. I'm projecting that this college will be around another 150 years because there is still a need for historically black colleges.