Dr. Dwaun J. Warmack tells a story of visiting Orangeburg in 2019 while he was a candidate for the Claflin University presidency.
Warmack and first lady LaKisha Warmack dressed up as “secret shoppers” and made a trip from St. Louis, where he was president of Harris-Stowe University.
Warmack said there was at first a culture shock coming from a city the size of St. Louis to Orangeburg. It didn’t last long. He said he and his wife became convinced Claflin was right for their family.
“This is an amazing place,” he has said of Claflin.
The new president expected challenges when he took over in August 2019, following Claflin legend and President Dr. Henry N. Tisdale. He knew there would be major expectations amid record fundraising and rankings successes. But nothing could have prepared Warmack for what was to come less than a year after he became president: a global pandemic that forced just about everything to change.
When students left for spring break in 2020, they would not return to campus because of the COVID-19 risk. Warmack made the decision to move Claflin to totally online learning for the remainder of the semester, with the decision carrying over into much of the fall of 2020.
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A major challenge was broadband access. Warmack said he had no idea of limitations and today has made expanding access to technology for students on campus and in the community -- and beyond -- a priority.
If there were any doubts about a young new president, he dispelled them. As Warmack frequently states, the objective was to do more than survive, it was to thrive.
And thrive Claflin has done.
Unlike with many higher education institutions, enrollment has held steady and even grown.
Fundraising has reached new levels, with Claflin receiving the single largest donation ever.
Rankings show the university as a the top historically Black college and university, and among the top higher education institutions in the state and region.
Major goals remain in 2021 as Warmack celebrates his inauguration as president in a ceremony held this past weekend during homecoming. It came more than a year and half after the pandemic forced postponement of the ceremony.
A Warmack priority is a construction of a new student center, a three-story facility that is to be located at Magnolia and Goff and will be transformational.
As has been Warmack’s message from the start of his tenure, the student center will be more than a place for students. Its movie theater and other amenities will be for the community, the same as new facilities Claflin has opened and plans for downtown Orangeburg. This is a president in touch with the reality that what the Orangeburg community has to offer is integral to the success of the university.
Importantly, the president continues to realize that a focus on safety amid the pandemic is vital. While he surely wants to push ahead at full speed, the president has announced that Claflin will require that all students on campus in spring 2002 will be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
It’s a policy that could cost the university some enrollment numbers but one that Warmack has said is necessary. Based on similar policies at other HBCUs and institutions of higher learning, he is not wrong and is willing to take the risk in the name of protecting students, faculty, administration and community.
Warmack is fond a describing the experience of being president during these unique times as “building the plane while we’re flying it.” So far he has Claflin on course and ready to face even loftier challenges.