The Claflin University Board of Trustees made a wise decision in April 1994.
That’s when the governing body announced that Dr. Henry N. Tisdale, an alumnus, was its choice to lead the university on July 1 of that year. Tisdale and his wife, Alice Carson Tisdale, formed an awesome leadership team that catapulted the university to national prominence in higher education.
After 25 years, their exceptional leadership has been one of phenomenal transformation for the university. With a committed interest in the future of Claflin University, Tisdale’s vision for his alma mater was articulated soon after he became the eighth president of the first historically black college or university in South Carolina.
He wanted Claflin to become recognized as “a premier private liberal arts institution in the Southeast region, an institution of the highest quality that demonstrates its commitment to excellence in carrying out her mission by being and doing the best she can with what she has and by continuously striving to get better.”
To that end, he found it important to “create a sound fiscal system, a dynamic strategic planning process, a link between the budget and planning process, an enrollment plan, and an academic plan for excellence.”
Four months after his arrival, Tisdale announced the establishment of the Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics. With funding from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy totaling nearly $2 million, Tisdale identified three areas of concentration: strengthening academic programs in science, engineering and mathematics; renovating the James S. Thomas Science Center; and upgrading the Summer Science Camp for middle school students.
In addition to strengthening Claflin’s academic programs, the Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics was implemented to increase the number of minorities receiving bachelor’s degrees in science, engineering and mathematics, thus incorporating a strategy to reverse the number of underrepresented minorities in STEM disciplines.
Additionally, in 1994, the Alice Carson Tisdale Honors College was established. With higher entry requirements, the Honors College works to prepare students for graduate and professional schools and leadership roles in their profession and society at large through learning experiences, academic advising, cultural enrichment and community service. First Lady Alice Carson Tisdale serves as the director of the honors college.
In 1997, Claflin’s Academic Plan for Excellence was implemented, and the Leadership Development Center was established. Also in 1997, the university kicked off its most ambitious Capital Campaign in Claflin’s history at the time -- a five-year, $20 million campaign. The goal was surpassed in three years and reached more than $30 million in 2002.
One of the crown jewels of the facilities enhancement effort was the completion in 1998 of the three-building Living and Learning Center. The complex includes a four-story residence hall configured in suites with computer laboratories and study rooms, a leadership development center and a campus center. To complement the Living and Learning Center, give better access to the campus and create a more appealing appearance, a new entrance was completed and won the statewide Outstanding Downtown Revitalization Award. In 2000, three new parking lots were developed and a new Goff Street entrance was added.
In 1999, with support provided by a grant from the National Park Service, historic Ministers Hall underwent major restoration and now serves as a performing arts facility. In 1999, the interior of the building was named the Ernest A. Finney Jr. Auditorium in honor of South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest A. Finney, a Claflin graduate. That same year, trustees adopted a resolution to restore the institution to its original historic name, Claflin University. Another event that year was the naming of the Arthur E. Rose Museum in honor of the distinguished graduate and professor.
The 21st century
A few years later, the Claflin University restored Tingley Memorial Hall and renovated the H.V. Manning Library. In 2004, the university constructed the $15 million Student Residential Center comprised of four residential facilities and the new University Dining Center for students and faculty. The new $2 million Music Center was also constructed to house the nationally accredited music program.
In 2005, Claflin broke ground for its new $3 million chapel to replace the T. Willard Lewis Chapel, which had been demolished in 1968 to make room for the W.V. Middleton Fine Arts Center. That same year, the university earned the S.C. Preservation Honors Award for the restoration of Ministers Hall, Tingley Memorial Hall and Lee Library, and Claflin launched its second graduate program, a master of science in biotechnology.
In 2006, the university did a complete makeover of the Mary E. Dunton Residential Hall for women. In early 2007, the newly built chapel was consecrated and named the James and Dorothy Z. Elmore Chapel in honor of the husband and wife whose $250,000 challenge grant inspired more than 2,000 supporters to contribute to the $3 million building. A permanent marker was erected at the site of the old chapel.
By 2008, the student population of 1994 had doubled. Students came from 26 states and 15 countries, and the pool of applicants rose significantly. The campus had also doubled in size, undergoing more than $100 million in renovations and improvements. The student/faculty ratio was 12:1, and 80 percent of faculty held terminal degrees in their fields.
In that same year, Claflin was ranked the top HBCU in the country by Forbes.com and listed in the top 4 percent of all colleges and universities in the nation.
Many more developments have occurred since 2008. Claflin consistently has been ranked as a “Best Buy” and a national liberal arts institution by U.S. News and World Report. Claflin's Molecular Research Center has been designated a core research facility by the South Carolina Research Authority and the university capped in 2016 a Capital Campaign by raising $105 million, exceeding its $96.4 million original goal.
Additionally, the university has launched fully online undergraduate and graduate programs and constructed a $12.5 million residential facility for men and women with amenities for health and wellness and a revised strategic initiative that drives the university’s desired goals during the early part of the 21st century. Under Tisdale’s administration, alumni support has soared to a high of 52.2 percent, which led all historically black colleges and universities.
During the 2016-17 academic year, Claflin launched its RN (registered nurse) to BSN (bachelor of science in nursing) program, becoming the only historically black college or university in the state offering a BSN degree. A year later, Claflin University launched its master’s degree program in criminal justice.
A landmark study commissioned by UNCF titled “HBCUs Make America Strong: The Positive Economic Impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities” was released by UNCF in February 2018. It documents the significant economic contributions of Claflin University and the nation’s network of HBCUs by quantifying their impact on the economy, employment and increased earning power of their students.
The study was underwritten by Citi Foundation, and the economic estimates were prepared by the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth. Key findings of the study outline that:
- Claflin University helps to make Orangeburg strong by generating $79 million in total economic impact.
- Claflin University generates 835 jobs for the local and regional economies.
- Graduates of Claflin University can expect to earn $1 billion over their lifetimes, 70 percent more than they could expect to earn without a college credential.
In 2019, the university opened a refurbished and expanded Jonas T. Kennedy Health and Physical Education Center. Renamed the Jonas T. Kennedy Health and Wellness Complex, the 33,000-square-foot expansion provides holistic health, nutrition and lifelong wellness education to the Claflin University campus community and area residents. The ultra-modern facility includes an auxiliary gym, fitness center, demonstration kitchen, walking track, office space, classrooms and outdoor space to serve as a market place for local farmers.
Tisdales' awards and honors
Throughout his career, Tisdale has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors in recognition of his exceptional and transformative leadership. He is the recipient of the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian award, and the Higher Education Leadership Foundation Award.
In September 2008, the Town of Kingstree, in recognition of the extraordinary achievements of their native son, erected a lasting tribute, six highway markers proclaiming Kingstree the “Home of Dr. Henry N. Tisdale, The Eighth President of Claflin University.”
Tisdale’s other honors include the 2008 CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) District III Chief Executive Leadership Award, the 2007 Milliken Medal of Quality Award, 2007 BellSouth Honoree, the I. DeQuincey Newman Humanitarian Award, the NAFEO (National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education) Distinguished Alumni Award, Who’s Who Among Black Americans and the NAACP Educator of the Year Award. He has been awarded honorary doctorates from Hofstra University and South Carolina State University.
Over the years, Tisdale also has served on many committees, councils, boards and task forces at both the state and national levels. He is a member of the board of directors of UNCF, American Council on Education Commission on Effective Leadership, UNCF Special Programs Board of Directors, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges Council of Presidents and the HBCU-ETS Steering Committee. He was a member of former Gov. Nikki Haley’s Transition Team.
Additionally, he serves as a member of the board of directors of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and a member of the University Senate of The United Methodist Church, a member of the Orangeburg County Economic Development Partners and a member of the board of directors of the Orangeburg County Development Commission.
He is a member of the Claflin University National Alumni Association, Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, the Orangeburg Rotary Club and Trinity United Methodist Church.
First Lady Alice Carson Tisdale has been exceptional in her own right and her support and influence go beyond the walls of Claflin University. She has a ubiquitous presence on a slate of community boards and organizations. She serves on the Governor’s Mansion and Lace House Commission; board member, The Oaks; past national president and secretary/treasurer of the National Association of African American Honors Programs; past board chair of the Orangeburg County Salvation Army; and past board chair of the Orangeburg County Community of Character.
She was a member and co-founder/director of the “Praise Kids” children’s Christian Theater at Trinity United Methodist Church. She is a very popular motivational speaker for children and people of all ages.
The Tisdales made a $250,000 gift to Claflin University in 2013 and established the Henry N. and Alice Carson Tisdale Endowed Professorship in STEM as well as the Henry N. Tisdale Endowed Scholarship and the Alice Carson Tisdale Endowed Scholarship. These endowments help support the growing reputation Claflin has earned for producing graduates from STEM disciplines. Claflin is one of the region’s leading liberal arts universities and its emphasis on STEM aligns with career opportunities in today’s workplace.
The Tisdales have two children, Dr. Danica Camille Tisdale Fisher (Dr. Damany Fisher) and Brandon Keith Tisdale, and two grandchildren, Asa and Anansa Fisher.