When Roslyn Clark Artis arrives at Benedict College this September, she will make history: She’s the first female president in the annals of the 147-year-old institution.
Which, actually, is nothing new for her. She was also the first female president of her current school, Florida Memorial University in North Miami, Florida, breaking a tradition of 135 years of male leadership.
“And we’re keeping the numbers in sequence,” she points out; she was also the 13th president at Florida Memorial and will be the 14th president of Benedict.
Artis will take over for David Swinton who, with 23 years of service, is Benedict’s longest serving president.
Although Benedict is larger (2,282 students) than Florida Memorial (1,467 students), Artis says the two historically black schools share other traits: mid-sized, private, Baptist-affiliated, and with a similar program mix.
There is also a similar challenge in meeting 21st century demands, to go beyond the HBCU tradition of producing teachers.
“Good strong legacy, nothing wrong at all with that,” she says. “However, I think it’s very widely known that starting salaries for educators, our most important professionals, are not necessarily competitive.”
The same, she adds, goes for social work, criminal justice and communications.
At Florida Memorial, part of the answer has been through an enhanced focus on technical skills. Graduates in the criminal justice program are trained in cyber security. These students “now have the skills and talent to demand a much higher salary,” she says.
Artis came to higher education after nearly a decade as a civil litigation attorney. She earned a doctorate in higher education leadership and policy from Vanderbilt University, and worked for a dozen years at troubled Mountain State University in West Virginia.
Her final years there would be marked by controversy that continues to haunt her.
She was MSU’s executive vice president of academic affairs and chief academic officer in 2009 and provost in 2012, a period when the school — which closed in late 2012, after losing accreditation — was struggling to stay alive.
According to a May 12 story in the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, a 2010 lawsuit filed by former psychology professor Kimberly H. O’Toole in Kanawha Circuit Court in West Virginia alleged that the school deliberately kept students in the dark about the school’s financial condition. The lawsuit alleged that Artis prohibited administrators from warning students of school problems.
“O’Toole was subsequently terminated without cause from her job,” according to the website, “after advising students that the nursing program failed to meet national accreditation standards. She settled with Mountain State in late 2012, a few weeks before its closure.”
In a separate incident, a 2016 story in the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette-Mail says that Artis can be heard in a 2009 voice recording virtually daring a group of students to sue the school.
On the recording, according to the newspaper, Artis said “I’m not scared of your lawsuit, bring it on. If we’re liable, we’ll end up paying and if we’re not, then we won’t. Bring it.”
In 2015, the now-shuttered university sold its Beckley campus to West Virginia University for $8 million “to help settle a class-action lawsuit in which hundreds of former students sued the university for not providing them a worthy education,” according to the Gazette-Mail.
As of press time, Artis had not responded to new questions regarding her tenure at Mountain State University.
Charlie Johnson, chairman of Benedict College’s board of trustees, says Artis’s tenure at Mountain State University was discussed but ultimately had no bearing on the school’s decision.
“We had a search committee and it was made up of community people, staff at Benedict, teacher representatives, and students,” Johnson says. “The search committee all agreed that we would look past that and move forward.”
For Johnson and Benedict, Artis is starting fresh.
“We’ve given her a clean sheet of paper,” he says, “and we’re going to let her write her own history.”
Artis’ leadership of Florida Memorial, by contrast, does not appear to have been roiled by controversy. Named to the post in February 2014 after six months as interim, she has long outlasted her two predecessors — one stayed less than a year, another stayed two years — and considerably boosted gifts.
“Since assuming the presidency in 2013, unrestricted gifts increased 20 percent (year over year), restricted gifts increased by 38 percent, and revenue from grants and sponsored research increased by 22 percent,” according to a Benedict College press release. “Dr. Artis is also credited with soliciting and receiving the largest gift from a single donor ($3.8 million) in the institution’s history.”
Her own philosophy of raising money has a lot to do with establishing trust, she tells Free Times.
“When people are making those investments, they want to know they are going to go where they are directing it to go for the purpose of which they’ve given them,” she says.
Regardless, the role Artis played in MSU’s demise has come up whenever she has looked for work at other universities. In April of last year, it became a public issue when she was seeking the top spot at her alma mater, West Virginia State University. (She ultimately withdrew her candidacy.) The MSU story resurfaced again just two months ago at Jackson State University in Mississippi, when her candidacy raised concerns with alumni.