Veteran educators return to lead their embattled alma mater, Central State University.
In the 1960s, in the midst of Vietnam War protests and the emergence of the Black power movement, students John Garland and James Renick worked as campus advocates to change the environment and curricula at Central State University.
“We were trying to make the institution relevant to our time,” Garland says. “We had many hours of thoughtful conversation. We talked about what we believed in and the direction society was taking.”
Today, Garland, president of Central State, and his college friend Renick, who began serving as senior adviser to Garland in May, spend time brainstorming ways to strengthen and expand their alma mater, whose main campus is located in Wilberforce, Ohio.
The duo are working to address serious challenges, such as securing more funding and improving student retention at Ohio’s only public HBCU. They are also devising ways to boost graduation rates as Ohio has started linking school funding to institutions’ ability to graduate students. A significant expansion is in the works, which includes a recently opened Dayton campus.
Garland, a New York native who dropped out of high school at 17 to join the U.S. Marine Corps, enrolled at Central State after earning a high school equivalency diploma. He graduated from The Ohio State University School of Law in 1974.
The journey back to Central State in a leadership capacity for Garland began when he became general counsel to the University of the District of Columbia in 1988. He became intrigued by higher education.
“It’s the students. It’s the whole idea of helping young people. It’s helping the next generation — it’s an exciting process,” Garland says. “Universities are one of the most complex nonprofit organizations that you can find. We not only educate people, but we house, we feed. We’re an organization that takes on a complex role in the lives of young people.”
By 1995, Garland, who had held multiple positions at the University of Virginia, began reading articles and conversing with former classmates about his alma mater, which was struggling with severe debt and a troubled football team.
The school’s accumulated debt in 1995 was reportedly $11.6 million, and a later state audit found that about $5.2 million of the money students owed had not been collected, according to published reports. In early 1995, Dr. Herman B. Smith Jr., Garland’s predecessor, came to Central State but was fired in the summer of 1996 for not helping the school climb out of debt. In 1997, there were talks of merging Central State with the private historically Black Wilberforce University because it was struggling so much.
Central State canceled its football program following the 1996 season after the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics banned the team from post season play for two years for fielding academically ineligible players. The state required the school to temporarily drop football as a condition for continued funding.
Garland quickly volunteered to provide his consulting services to Central State’s board of trustees and his résumé began circulating as a potential new leader for the school. Garland says uniformly his colleagues were supportive of his selection as president, but that some expressed concern that he would not gain enough political support to direct his embattled alma mater.
“I did not think of this as a career move as I did an opportunity to offer leadership and support to help a very, very important institution,” Garland says of his decision to leave UVA for Central State.
Over the years, Garland stayed in contact with Renick, who held a number of administrative posts, as they moved through the ranks and continued to advance their careers.
“When I took over the presidency, I often called on Renick for advice and counsel. I would bounce things off of him,” Garland says.
Since Garland took over in 1997, enrollment has nearly tripled to 2,400 students and the school’s goal is to serve 6,000 students by 2017. Garland says much of this growth has to do with the Speed to Scale initiative, a state initiative that provides funding to facilitate growth. It includes a scholarship program created to attract students interested in the STEM fields.
The school has also built two new residence halls and restored the football team, which had been inactive for eight years. This summer, Central State formed a partnership with the Cincinnati State Technical and Community College to create a smooth transition for students who want to transfer to the four-year institution.
There are new challenges for which Garland has tapped Renick to help address. Administrators say need- and merit-based aid must increase in order to meet the school’s goal of enrolling more students. “Since most of our students don’t come from upper- and middle-class backgrounds, it’s how we can provide access to those students,” says Renick, who also acts as the university’s strategic planning officer. “With state money shrinking we don’t have as much support. That’s a real concern. That’s probably No. 1.”
This challenge may become more diffi cult to overcome in the coming years since Ohio lawmakers have changed the formula for funding the state’s 14 public universities as part of its new operating budget. The formula, which is believed by some to increase institutional performance and efficiency, would be based on each institution’s ability to retain and graduate students.
Central State’s six-year graduation rate for the 2002 cohort was 28.04 percent. That rate indicates a signifi cant attainment gap when compared with the rest of the state. According to an American Enterprise Institute study, Ohio’s 62 public and private institutions had a 54.5 percent average graduation rate.
“The other (challenge) is that many students, like us, come from urban communities where there have been issues in public schooling,” Renick says. “We’re in a much more competitive environment. You have to constantly re-evaluate the institution.”
After graduating from Central State with a bachelor’s in sociology in 1970, Renick, a native of Illinois, earned a master’s in social work from the University of Kansas and a doctorate in public administration and government from Florida State University.
Renick began his tenure as chancellor and professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn in 1993 and became chancellor and professor of political science at North Carolina A&T State University in July 1999. He resigned in the midst of controversy alleging that he misused the school’s funds in 2006 and became a senior vice president for programs and research at the American Council on Education. In January 2009, he was cleared of any wrongdoing. Renick says being president of a university is “wonderful, incredible work. The only way you can understand it deeply is to be in the role. Having been in that role, it is my hope that I can help Garland.”
In December, Garland invited Renick to a presidential cabinet retreat. Months later, the two discussed a top administrative opening in which Renick might be interested.
“A light bulb went off. I thought about it, and I thought about it,” Renick says. “At that point, it was like a divine intervention. It really pointed to the fact that I was where I was supposed to be.”
Renick says he saw his new role at Central State as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“I’m back with someone with whom I started at 18. For me it’s about purpose. I’m walking over places on campus where I walked when I was 18,” Renick says.
Colette Burnette, vice president of administration and finance at Central State, says Renick and Garland have good chemistry.
“I think it’s good that their personal and professional goals intersect,” says Burnette. “Their friendship conquers that. It makes it better.”
She also says Renick’s involvement allows Garland to be more external and allows him to travel more extensively. “I’m working with a visionary, a good friend, a Central State graduate, and deeply committed person.
It makes for an incredible experience,” Renick says. “You can go home again. It’s our hope that others take what they learned and go back home.”
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