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Johnson C. Smith University inaugurates new president

Presbyterian legacy honored in festivities; president announces vision for global education and outreach to foster youth

By Beth Newberry

Dr. Ronald Lee Carter holds a scepter while on stage.

Dr. Carter in regalia at inauguration. Photo by Beth Newberry

Johnson C. Smith University inaugurated Dr. Ronald Lee Carter as the historically Presbyterian college’s 13th president on April 16, 2009, with several days of activities. Carter assumed the presidency on July 1 of last year after the Dr. Dorothy Cowser Yancy, president for 14 years, retired. Carter delayed his investiture to coincide with the college’s 142nd Founders’ Day. In his speech, Carter highlighted the passion and dedication of the Presbyterian founders, the Rev. Samuel Alexander and the Rev. W.L. Miller, in establishing an educational center for freed African Americans in the region.

Honoring Presbyterian Heritage

The historically racial ethnic college was founded in 1867 by Rev. Samuel Alexander and Rev. W.L. Miller, two Presbyterian ministers, during a meeting of the Catawba Presbytery in the church basement of the congregation now known as First United Presbyterian Church. Rev. Dr. Gregory M. Busby Sr., pastor of First United Presbyterian Church, opened the inauguration, held in the college’s gymnasium, with a welcome. “Johnson C. Smith University has established a reputation for preparing men and women for leadership and service,” he said.

Busby looks forward to future collaborations between the congregation and the University community. First United hosted Dr. Carter as a preacher at the church’s homecoming last fall. “I’m excited about forging partnerships,” Busby said, "based on mutual ties [of the Presbyterian founders] and building into the 21st century.”

In Carter’s inaugural speech, he acknowledged the traditions and past accomplishments of the university as stepping stones for future progress. This is a perspective Busby describes as one of honoring the past, but focusing on how to “make history now.”

Educating foster youth

In his address, Carter promoted his vision for the university, asserting that JCSU’s “campus climate is conducive for students who grew up in foster care to be successful.” Carter, a former foster parent, has served both as a long-term foster father and a short-term emergency caregiver. Each year, 20,000 individuals age out of foster care in the United States, according to the Network on Transitions to Adulthood, a University of Pennsylvania-based consortium of researchers.

Since his arrival, Carter met several students who came to the university who had lived in foster care as children or been emancipated from foster care at the age of 18. His personal passion for the care and success of foster children and youth has transformed into an institutional priority.

In his speech, Carter drew attention to the achievements of Marie Ary, a sophomore with a 3.6 grade point average. A published poet she lived with a foster family through her childhood, according to Carter. Ary worked last summer with California Youth Connection, an organization that fosters “youth building a foundation for the future,” according to its Web site.

Ary “came alive at Smith,” Carter said, adding that after hearing her story, he asked himself, “If [John C. Smith University] did that for Marie why can’t we do that for others who have no home and want a future?”

Carter jump-started his initiative in February as the college hosted a campus visit exclusively for 300 foster youth from Charlotte-area high schools. The university is seeking resources that will allow students to live on campus year round and to support them with academic and career preparation services in a community environment at JCSU, an environment that many staff and students describe as a supportive and caring family.

Advancing research and education

Carter’s other initiatives seek to provide new educational avenues and civic-engagement opportunities to students with the Smith Institute for Applied Research.

The Centers of Excellence within the Institute focus on Diversity, Minority Health, Homeland Security-Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (HS-STEM) and Global Education.

“It’s exciting to have a comprehensive program of global education to understand [the global economy] and work” within it, Carter said. Each Center will be equipped with a fellow, a faculty researcher and student researcher.

As an example of Carter’s enthusiasm for students to embrace and experience global education, he sponsored a two-week passport registration drive with JCSU paying the fees for applications and bringing the post office staff to campus. It’s Carter’s goal for each student to have a passport. As part of the kick-off to the program, 12 students won all-expense paid trips to Italy after the spring semester ends in May.

Welcoming the future

The excitement for Dr. Carter’s tenure was palpable at the inauguration as mentors, former students of Dr. Carter’s, spoke, and trustees and community members gave well-wishes. While all the speakers spoke with heartfelt admiration and hope and good wishes, a JCSU student Abdul-Aziz N. Davis, Class of 2010, performed a spoken-word piece about the history and the future of the institution. “Close your eyes to see who Smith will be in ten years/You don’t have to worry, Dr. Carter is here/Grab the golden bull [JCSU’s mascot] … by the horn/ we’re honoring tradition by instituting change.”

In the months since Carter took office, he has set himself as an accessible figure on campus to students, helping first-year students carry luggage as they moved in to dorms and cheering for the football team alongside the side lines. “Dr. Carter is student-oriented and encourages students to speak up,” said Rashad Smith, a junior and communication arts major from Rochester, N.Y. Carter has an open door policy where one day per week he sets aside a block of time to meet with students.

In 2009 U.S. News and World Report ranked Johnson C. Smith among the top 10 of “America’s Best Black Colleges,” also known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Carter has poised the university, already a nationally-recognized liberal arts college, to build on tradition with his vision of academic excellence, civic engagement and an investment in research to “demonstrate what an HBCU is for the 21st century.”

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