Dr. Henry Tisdale returned to his alma mater of Claflin College in Orangeburg as its president in 1994 with the vision of transforming it into one of the premier liberal arts institutions in the Southeastern United States.
Twenty-five years later that quest for excellence has paid off. As Tisdale prepares to retire from his beloved university, it is recognized by U.S. News and World Report as one of the nation's top liberal arts institutions.
"The one thing that I’m most proud of is the fact that we’ve been able to reposition the university. Every aspect of the university has been transformed. Claflin in 1994 was a good institution that had received little recognition," Tisdale said in a recent interview.
"But now with our teamwork, our collective work over the years, we’ve been able to reposition her as one of America’s best colleges -- from an institution that in 1994 might have been described as one of America’s best kept secrets to saying we are now annually recognized as a leading institution by reputable national publications."
The Kingstree native said he was confident that Claflin would move up in the rankings and join its peers as one of the "best of the best" because of its DNA of being established as the first historically black college in South Carolina.
"I was aware of the university being founded as a degree-granting institution at that time, which was the exception to the rule. Many of those institutions, especially those founded primarily for African-American students, started as normal or trade schools, but this institution was founded as a degree-granting university. That says something about what the promise was for this institution," Tisdale said.
"Also I was very much aware coming in of the the values of the institution. The institution was inclusive. The charter prohibited discrimination, which said this was an institution for all, without limits. And I was also aware that Claflin was very early on a leader in terms of the liberal arts, not just of HBCUs but for the region," he said, noting that Claflin had the first formal art department of any college or university in the state, established by Mrs. Dunton, the third first lady of the university in the late 1880s.
"And of course when you looked at the curriculum of Claflin, you saw a university that was really on the cutting edge. No surprise that Claflin would graduate one of the first black Ph.Ds in the country -- in Latin, no less."
Tisdale's own experience as a student at Claflin also factored into his decision to accept the job as its president.
"I chose to attend Claflin, and it was the right choice. It was an institution that prepared me well. It was an institution that was competitive in terms of faculty, in terms of the preparation of students," he said.
The board of trustees, the faculty, the staff and the alumni ultimately bought into his vision for Claflin University, Tisdale said.
"I will honestly tell you that there were some board members who were a little concerned. The concern was were we aiming too high. This vision was that Claflin College would be one of the premier institutions in the Southeastern region of the U.S.," he said. "Were we changing the mission of the institution? Were we becoming an elite college by adopting such a vision? Should we fail, would we be embarrassed by setting the bar so high for Claflin University?"
"I must say that we had a very robust discussion that day, and I look back at this time in 1995 as a defining moment in my presidency. But I’m pleased to tell you that at the end of the day, we reached an understanding. We weren’t changing Claflin’s commitment in terms of access. ... We weren’t trying to be elitists," Tisdale said. "We simply wanted Claflin to be recognized as one of the best. We were committed to giving our all and working as hard as we could work. … We were not going to work hard to be No. 2. We were working to become No. 1 in terms of being among the best in the region. At the end of the day, 100 percent of the board members said, 'We share that vision.'"
And the board gave more than just lip service to the vision, he said.
"We were in a strategic planning process, and they said let’s look at the strategic goals and let's see what we need to do to become a partner with the president and the faculty and staff in carrying out this vision. They added a strategic goal of board leadership and development ... especially in the area of bringing resources to the institution, fundraising. The trustees said, 'We must become the leaders and not just depend on the president and the staff to do that. In order to do that, we’ll need to change as a board. We’ll need to look at the composition of the board and determine whether or not we have the right mix of board members who can reach into many circles of influence and bring the resources needed to propel this institution to being among the top … looking at the board and having the skill sets a board would need, in particular a board that was more corporate based.'"
"That vision drove us in a certain direction and it brought us closer together as Team Claflin," Tisdale said.
He said Claflin's alumni embraced the vision too.
"They accepted that challenge, they shared the vision and they demonstrated their passion for their alma mater. Over the years in fundraising, they were among the leaders in terms of contributing to the institution and in terms of annual percentage of giving for an alumni group. In 2013, their average giving percentage hit 52.2 percent, an all-time high. For the last 20 years or more, Claflin alumni have been No. 1 among all the HBCUs nationally in terms of the percentage, Tisdale said.
"These are individuals that are very passionate about this university, and I also believe these are graduates who feel good about the education that they received at Claflin."
Building on success
During Tisdale's tenure, the university launched two very successful capital campaigns, the most recent bringing in a historic $105 million -- during the recession, by the way.
"It sent a message across the board that those who were committed to the university -- people in general, donors, faculty, staff, students, alumni -- felt good about the university and its future," Tisdale said. "It demonstrated the board was doing what they said they were going to do in our strategic plan, and that is bring leadership, especially in the area of fundraising."
A strong Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program emerged at Claflin during Tisdale's tenure.
"I knew that any institution would need to have a strong program in STEM," he said. "I asked the faculty, 'You tell me. I’m the new president coming in. I need to know from you what are our centers of excellence, what are our programs of future prominence that we can build on today?' Almost 100 percent said, 'If you really want to jump on something at Claflin that is ready to take off, that has outstanding faculty, almost 100 percent Ph.Ds, that has some of the strongest students here on the campus getting involved in grants, it’s science and mathematics; this is where we should start to build.'
"So I took advantage of the consensus to make that part of the vision. It was just understanding the future of the world in terms of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. From my personal experience, when I graduated with my Ph.D. in math from Dartmouth in 1978, there were eight African Americans nationally receiving a Ph.D. in mathematics. A few years later, there were only four," Tisdale said. "We looked at engineering and computer science and the like, and in terms of students going on and earning the highest degrees, it was the same picture. I knew there was a great need to build a center of excellence around STEM to continue to draw the best faculty, the best students and the best programs."
Currently, 25 percent of Claflin's incoming students go into the STEM disciplines and the same percentage is in STEM at the point of graduation, he said.
"We’ve added a lot of programs in STEM -- bioinformatics, biochemistry, biotechnology, computer science, computer engineering, the Master of Science degree program in biotechnology. And we looked at our facilities. Our Molecular Science Research Center was declared a core research facility for the state of South Carolina because of the type of equipment we have in there, including a 700 megahertz NMR spectrometer. When we bought that system, Claflin had the most advanced system in the state," Tisdale said.
Claflin STEM faculty members have been recognized as some of the top faculty in the state, he said.
The university faculty across the board in all disciplines is strong, moving from 50 percent Ph.D. or terminal degrees to more than 83 percent, Tisdale said. Claflin has also become a leader in retention and graduation of students among all private and independent universities and colleges, "even though our student profile is much more challenging when you think of educating a student population where 74 percent qualify for Pell grants, students with financial needs and 40 percent-plus students who are first-generation students," he said.
"The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington looked at what we were doing and said it's incredible given the profile of students you are serving, that you are giving access to first generation, low-income students, some who are academically challenged, but yet you are retaining and … graduating these students at phenomenal rates," Tisdale said.
As a result, the Gates Foundation has partnered with Claflin to provide more opportunities to its students.
"The enrollment when I came was just a little over 900; we’re over 2,200 students today. At the same time we have strengthened the academic profile of the students," Tisdale noted. Part of that increase has come with the advent of its online degree programs, he said.
Doing God's work
Tisdale said his years at Claflin have been about vision, taking risks and collaborating with other local, state and national higher education institutions and organizations.
He said he and his wife of 40 years, educator Alice Carson Tisdale, for whom Claflin's honors college is named, have concluded that they were called to do God's work at the university. At the time, Tisdale was at Delaware State University, his wife was a middle school educator, their daughter was in high school and their son was in middle school.
"There was a strong pull, and God's voice calling me to go back to South Carolina to lead my alma mater into the 21st century," Tisdale said.
He said he and his wife have always been a team in all aspects of their lives, including their work at Claflin.
"I’ve always said that when Claflin University employed me as president, they got two for one," Tisdale said.
The Tisdales will relocate to Charleston after they leave Claflin at the end of June.
"We are thankful to the Orangeburg community for embracing me and my family and the Claflin University family over the years. We could not have accomplished what we have without that support," President Tisdale said.
"We will miss our friends on the campus and in the community as well. We’re very pleased with what we have been able to accomplish and the position of the institution at this time, the 150th anniversary of Claflin," he said.
"It's time to hand the baton over to that next great leader who will move Claflin to new levels of excellence."