By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
There are several reasons why Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., continues to rank No. 1 in alumni giving among HBCUs.
But the most recent reason surfaced when President Henry N. Tisdale named an annual $20,000 endowed scholarship for Senator Clementa Pinckney, who was one of nine people a lone gunman killed on June 17 at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston.
Tisdale said he established the scholarship because the university’s and the church’s history are intertwined. Claflin was launched in 1866 in Charleston just a few blocks from Emanuel African Methodist Church. Both were established in protest to racial hatred. Tisdale said congregants of color no longer wanted to worship in the balcony of the white Methodist Church in Charleston. So they left, established Emmanuel AME Church, and also opened the Baker Theological Institute, which gave birth to Claflin.
“Claflin sprang from that in 1869,” said Tisdale, who presented a framed memorial to Mrs. Jennifer Pinckey, the widow of the slain senator, at the school’s recent Founder’s Day Convocation.
“It’s difficult to understand why it happened,” he said.
The two scholarships will be awarded to two students from the Edisto District of the African Methodist Church, of which Emmanuel AME is a member.
But this is the point. The new scholarship, the historic church, and Claflin University were actions. That is, clear responses to racial hatred. It was “unfathomable” that someone would walk into a prayer meeting and take lives, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen told the New York Times after the shootings made headlines. And Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley said, “To walk into a church and shoot someone, is out of pure hatred.”
But to Tisdale, a certified problem solver who holds several degrees in mathematics – well, he saw the recent hate crime as an opportunity to turn a negative into a plus. “We wanted it to be a plus where a university identifies with its history and also points to the future,” said Tisdale, who graduated with honors from Claflin in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.
To understand why Tisdale has a habit of turning a negative into a plus, look at his background. He earned two master’s degrees in mathematics at Temple University (1967) and Dartmouth (1975). He earned a doctorate in mathematics from Dartmouth College in 1978. He holds honorary doctorates from South Carolina State University (2004) and Hofstra University (2009).
A certified problem solver, in other words, Tisdale said in a recent telephone interview with the New Journal and Guide.
“We did not want it (the church shootings) to be a negative. We wanted it to be a plus. It was very important for an institution like Claflin University to respond for two reasons (our history and social justice).”
Ranked No. 1 in alumni giving among HBCUs, while many HBCUs are grappling with pressing financial problems, Claflin was selected the 2015 AARP/HBCU Digest HBCU of the Year.
U.S. News and World Report has consistently ranked Claflin as one of “America’s Best Colleges” for the past 17 years and the magazine again ranked the university a top tier national liberal arts college.
Washington Monthly ranked Claflin the No. 1 liberal arts college in South Carolina and the top HBCU in the nation in its 2015 annual College Guide.
“The spike did not happen overnight,” said Tisdale, who assumed office in 1994. “It has been building since 1995. We had a plan and everyone shared the vision and was onboard. I think we are doing several things right including how our graduates feel about the institution. We have developed a culture of giving back. We focus on customer service. We believe the student is our primary customer.
“Located on each desk on campus is what we call our Panther Service Commitment,” Tisdale said. “It is on walls especially in services areas like student accounts or residence halls. It is proudly displayed.”
Widespread satisfaction which leads to high alumni giving rates is not an accident, he said. “When I came it was about creating one Claflin, Team Claflin. “I did not assume I knew everything and nothing had been done,” Tisdale said. “I developed a plan called Building on Excellence. I knew there were those who were doing excellent work and I was there to build on what they had built.
“I let people know they were going to be part of the team,” he said. “What was important was developing a clear vision, articulating it, and knowing it was my responsibility to be courageous enough to put it out there and make a case for the vision.”
Clearly the strategy is working since alumni giving rates at Claflin are high. For example, in March Claflin announced that it had set a $100,000 million goal and had raised over $98 million. In fact students sold doughnuts, held step shows, and other events that raised $175,000 for the school’s Imagine the Possibilities Campaign.
“It begins with leadership,” Tisdale said. “This leadership in 1995 started at a board of trustee’s summer retreat. They were looking at future plans.
“It was quite a discussion and debate among trustees in 1994, the board decided they would move the university to a new level,” Tisdale said. “They decided to include a strategic goal that would focus on board leadership and development. We started building the future in 1995, in other words.
“But (widespread satisfaction) begins with consistent leadership,” Tisdale said. “Yes, I have been here a few years. And you see the same across the board. This leadership in 1995 started at a board of trustees’ summer retreat. They were looking at future plans. It was quite a discussion and debate. They decided to include a strategic goal that would focus on board leadership and development. We started building that in 1995, in other words,” Tisdale said. At a time when donations are low at many HBCUs, why do donations from the board, faculty, staff, and students hover around 90 percent at Claflin?
Again, Tisdale pointed to the satisfaction factor, as well as the Rev. Whittaker V. Middleton, who has served as the vice president of Institutional Advancement for about four decades.
“I’m pleased with that comment,” said Middleton, a Claflin graduate who received an annual $500 scholarship and worked in the work-study program on campus as a student. “If you would interview many vice presidents for advancement, at many HBCUs you would find that they have been there for about two or three years.
“But raising funds is all about relationships,” Middleton said. “It is hard to develop lasting relationships if people are in-and-out. What I have been able to achieve is because of my stability which allows me to develop a lot of relationships with alumni, corporations, and others. Once people have trust in you, and believe you will do the right thing with the funds, they will contribute.
“Dr. Tisdale’s support has also helped,” Middleton said. “He has given this office the staff that is needed plus he has given us the budget to do the things we need to do. He is actively involved in every campaign. He is always there for conference calls, meetings, and is not afraid to try new things, or best practices.”
Next Week – Part Two – Why Claflin University Ranks No. 1 in Alumni Giving Among HBCUs