Ron Carter arrived at Johnson C. Smith University seven years ago as a change agent, and testaments to his vision include the new light-filled science center on campus and the colorful Mosaic Village housing development along Charlotte’s northwest corridor.
Supporters say Carter, who has been president since July 2008, is just what the university – and west side – need to revitalize.
But as JCSU continues to struggle financially, some people question whether Carter has the business savvy and leadership skills to sustain his vision for the school and its neighborhood. What began as worried whispers around campus surfaced publicly three weeks ago when a former trustee petitioned to have Carter removed as president.
“We have a significant cash-flow problem,” said Talmadge Fair, a 1961 JCSU graduate and president of the Urban League of Greater Miami. “We have no reserves. We have vendors who have not been paid on time. Morale is low.”
Documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service show a $7.5 million deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014, and a $10 million deficit for the year ending June 30, 2013. Contrast that with a $29 million surplus for the year ending June 30, 2012.
For two years, Fair said he pressed for answers and was rebuffed. “They say everything is fine. I see a big hole.” After he voiced concerns for the second time in August, he was removed as a trustee.
Carter declined several requests for an interview. A statement from the college said Carter has an open door policy for students, faculty, staff and alumni but “does not respond to their concerns through third parties, including the media. Any alumnus, JCSU employee or JCSU student who has questions or concerns about the University is encouraged to meet with Dr. Carter.”
The statement said the university’s finances are reviewed and approved by a committee of the board of trustees, and said the board includes experts in business, banking, finance and law.
The public scrutiny comes eight months after the U.S. Department of Education placed the university on its “heightened cash monitoring” list of more than 550 colleges and universities. Eight of the nation’s 100 historically black colleges and universities are on the list.
That means JCSU must undergo additional financial oversight. It is the second year in a row that JCSU made the list. In a statement posted on its website last year, JCSU said its listing resulted from filing documents late.
As with other historically black colleges and universities, JCSU has struggled with declining enrollment and cuts in federal aid to students.
“I have some cash concerns!!!!” began a 2014 email from the university’s controller to its chief financial officer. The email cited nearly $2 million in outstanding checks, but less than $1.2 million in available funds.
In an interview with The Observer, a current employee talked about regularly fielding phone calls from vendors who have not been paid. “It’s really embarrassing,” said the employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. “It’s constant late-payments on everything.”
Jeweler Darrell Roach, who attended JCSU, said he is owed $100 – “not a lot of money” – and has not been paid for months. “Ron Carter owes the alumni, the entire JCSU family and the city an explanation,” Roach said. “We have the right to ask questions.”
Several current and former employees said Carter does not like to be second-guessed – what one former employee called “speaking truth to power.”
“Talmadge Fair being kicked off the board is consistent with that notion,” the former employee said.
Those interviewed questioned several of Carter’s management decisions and expressed concern about a “brain drain” of talented employees, including the recent departures of Elfred Pinkard, chief operating officer, and Ron Matthews, director of alumni affairs.
Pinkard could not be reached for comment. Said Matthews: “It was just time for me to move on.” Gerald Hector, a former vice president of business and finance who resigned in 2013, declined to comment.
More than 100 supporters have signed Fair’s petition online, but he said he also has heard privately from many JCSU employees and graduates who are afraid to speak publicly. “I’m shocked at the depth of it,” he said.
A former employee told The Observer, “People are scared to say stuff. They’re walking on eggshells.”
‘Our forward trajectory’
JCSU bills itself as a “new urban university.” Located on Charlotte’s west side, it is a private university, founded in 1867 as The Freedmen’s College of North Carolina. It has an enrollment of 1,452 students.
Jim Woodward, former chancellor of UNC Charlotte and a former JCSU trustee, praised Carter for steering the university through financial hardships over the past seven years. He said Carter was hired to “connect JCSU to the community” and “has been superbly successful.”
Carter came to Charlotte from Coker College in Hartsville, S.C., where he was provost and dean of faculty for 11 years. Prior to that, he worked at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and as dean of students at Boston University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Center.
He quickly became a high-profile public figure in Charlotte, serving on various civic boards ranging from Charlotte Center City Partners to Opera Carolina to Council for Children’s Rights.
“You go to any event in the community, chances are Ron’s going to be there,” Woodward said. “He’s done a really good job raising a lot of money in the community.”
Monroe Miller, chairman of the JCSU board of trustees, declined to be interviewed but in a written statement noted the importance of such fundraising:
“Our work is paying dividends as we attract the attention and funding of major foundations and corporations. We will continue our forward trajectory as a student-centered new urban institution dedicated to applied research, intellectual rigor in our undergraduate, graduate and professional programs, as well as strong partnerships and engagement with the Charlotte community.”
The Duke Endowment has been one of the university’s staunchest supporters, giving more than $142 million since 1924, including a record $35 million grant in 2011. The bulk of that grant –$25 million – went to build the new science center, and the rest for scholarships and capital improvements.
“Our board is comfortable with the progress and direction of the university,” said Susan McConnell, the foundation’s director of higher education. “With the progress reports that we get, the money that we give is being used for those purposes.”
The university recently announced another big grant – $1.2 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to boost graduation rates of low-income and other underserved students.
‘People are fed up’
In his “State of the University” speech in August, Carter likened the university to a ship on a dangerous voyage, buffeted by “furious winds of education debt” and “dark grey waves smashing seeming paradoxes of federal and state compliance mandates upon us.”
The shore, he said, is near.
Some people might disagree with the university’s path, he said, but he concluded: “... The time has come for me to say to them, with all due respect, if they feel they cannot read from the same vital navigational equipment with the rest of us as we draw close to land, they may need to consider disembarking now to seek another destination.”
Fair said he loves the university too much to disembark. He said the situation is “frighteningly worse” than he expected, based on information he has received about finances and Carter’s leadership since posting his petition. “I’m going to push forward with every fiber in my body to make sure this time next year Dr. Ron Carter is not president of this institution.”
Staff researcher Maria David contributed.