COLUMBIA, SC (courtesy thestate.com) — On the job for just 93 days as of Friday, Roslyn Artis is not sitting still.
The new president of Benedict College has been moving fast to make changes at the historically black college in downtown Columbia, and wants to see a bigger change in the next school year.
Artis says she plans to cap enrollment at Benedict at 2,000 students next fall. She also wants to slash the school’s $29,000-a-year tuition in a bid to make the 147-year-old school more attractive to new students.
The 47-year-old Artis sees the changes as part of a new era of cost cutting at Benedict in hopes of stabilizing the school’s financial situation.
“The board has been forthright about some of the challenges Benedict is facing,” Artis said in an exclusive interview Friday with The State. “Enrollment has fluctuated over time, and since we’re largely enrollment driven (in terms of revenue), that creates a bit of a problem. So when coming here, my first task was really to stabilize our financial picture, to be quite frank.”
In recent years, Benedict has dropped from a high of more than 3,000 students in 2011 to a little more than 2,000 today. In the same span of time, Benedict’s reported incoming revenue has fallen from $81 million in 2012 to $71.8 million at the end of 2015, according to IRS filings.
“The last chapter in Benedict’s book saw a president who was visionary and interested in expansion,” Artis said of her predecessor, David Swinton, Benedict’s president for 23 years. Swinton’s time in charge saw an increase in enrollment, new construction and expansion beyond the school’s Harden Street campus.
But that growth came at the cost of stretching the college’s finances.
“I’m interested in transitioning us from what was to what must be, frankly in order to remain solvent,” Artis said.
No more open enrollment
Changes in enrollment and tuition are meant to make Benedict both more attractive to incoming students, but also “create a sense of urgency” for those considering Benedict, Artis said.
“We have historically been known as an open enrollment institution, which brings with it a certain negative connotation. It does not speak to opportunity, which it was really intended to speak to, but it just means, ‘Oh, I’ll just go there.’ That’s not really how this works.
“If you want to choose Benedict, you should probably do that early, because we will close the door at a certain point,” she said.
Likewise, the lower tuition – which has yet to be set – is meant to make the school more competitive in the education marketplace. Today’s high price tag might discourage some students from even considering Benedict, while scholarships, discounts and subsidies mean the college only sees 41 cents of each dollar nominally owed to the school.
The cost also doesn’t match the community that Benedict serves. Sixty-four percent are first-generation college students, and 85 percent receive federal Pell grants.
“That doesn’t get these kids there,” Artis said. “They are borrowing money. We do not want those kids to leave here with a debt load that is oppressive. It’s not giving them a fair shot when they start out in the world if they have oppressive debt loads.”
‘I am going to be aggressive’
Artis said she is a big believer in the value of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Benedict. Growing up as a coal miner’s daughter in an almost all-white corner of West Virginia, Artis says she was “racially confused” before she attended historically black West Virginia State, becoming the first in her family to go to college in the process.
She first went to law school, then decided on a career in education after teaching a legal research class. At the end of the course, “my student left me a note saying, ‘You changed my life,’” she said.
She earned her doctorate from Vanderbilt University and went on to serve as president of Florida Memorial College, an HBC in Miami, for four years until this past summer.
“Amongst her peers, Dr. Artis is a star,” said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who sits on Benedict’s board of trustees. “She’s an educator, a lawyer and an expert in higher education finance, but her first priority is the students.”
J.T. McLawhorn, president of Columbia’s Urban League, was impressed with Artis after she gave a talk at his church.
“Dr. Artis has a passion for education, and she’s able to connect with the underserved as a first-generation college graduate,” McLawhorn said.
Part of Artis’s appeal to the board was her reputation as a fundraiser. At Florida Memorial, unrestricted gifts rose by 20 percent on her watch, and restricted gifts jumped 38 percent.
In comparison, Benedict received $12 million in outside contributions in 2015. Of that, Artis said only $2 million was gifted by donors, half by Benedict alumni and another $500,000 from Benedict-affiliated churches.
“We have not had what you would want to see from our corporate foundations, (or) from a private foundation standpoint,” Artis said. “We are a great bang for our buck. $1 million here is a significant, transformative gift when you think about the kind of kids we’re educating and the content of our budget.”
Artis points to a study that shows Benedict and its students had a $130 million impact on the surrounding community in 2014.
“If I’m doing business to the tune of $130 million, I ought to be getting something back from those businesses that we patronize and support,” she says. “So I am going to be aggressive and engaged with our business community.”
‘There’s a little fear of the unknown’
As part of her efforts to cut costs, Artis already has put some Benedict-owned off-campus housing properties – some as far away as St. Andrews – up for sale to consolidate Benedict’s students on campus.
The president says Benedict’s current faculty size – 116 full-time, 46 part-time – is the right fit for the newly capped class size. Her next step, she said, is to “update classroom technology and wireless infrastructure” to teach a more high-tech generation – as long as the faculty can keep up.
“There’s a little fear of the unknown, and that’s fine,” she said. “If you’ve been teaching one way for 25 years, you’re going to want to keep doing that.”
She has the support of her bosses to make changes. Benjamin says the board wants Artis to do a “full, top to bottom assessment” of the school.
“We are beginning a new chapter in the history of Benedict College. We are focusing very specifically on our core population and our core mission,” Artis said. “We are hopeful our business community will embrace our students.”
“And,” she added. “Send checks.”