When Harris-Stowe State University President Dwaun Warmack graduated from high school, he had a 1.7 grade-point average and did not think he was college material. Today, Warmack, 42, is one of the youngest presidents of a four-year college in the country.
His journey with Harris-Stowe began in 2014, but come July 31, he will leave the historically black university for Claflin University in South Carolina.
Around the 162-year-old campus in St. Louis, Warmack was known for engaging with his students through social media and schoolwide events, which he credits as one reason why the college has seen a steady increase in enrollment and retention during his presidency.
“The students are my people. That's the hardest part about leaving this job. I'm very student centred, student focused and student driven,” Warmack said. “I’m the college president, and I am walking around high-fiving and embracing them, because that's my family and I will do everything in my power to ensure that they are successful in their endeavors.”
Warmack says his strategic leadership tactics and the implementation of his enrollment-management plan have yielded significant dividends for the university. Though Warmack will be the head of Claflin University this fall, he predicts Harris-Stowe’s student enrollment will spike 14%, which will give the school about a 47% enrollment increase over the span of his tenure.
After Warmack’s departure, Harris-Stowe will position Provost Dwyane Smith as interim president, while members of the university’s Board of Regents continue to search for the institution’s next president.
Days after Warmack announced his exit from the school, he spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Andrea Henderson about his time at the university, what’s next for Harris-Stowe and why communities should invest in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Andrea Henderson: Under your leadership at Harris-Stowe State University, there was an increase of enrollment by 34% and you acquired nearly $24 million in external grant funding. What are you most proud of during your time there?
Dwaun Warmack: Well, I think Harris-Stowe has been an amazing experience. Outstanding students, amazing faculty, staff and alumni. So, there is a variety of things that I'm excited about, but if I were to say one thing is just the holistic development of our students. Students come into Harris-Stowe one way, transform and leave as global leaders. That's what I'm most excited about. But I think other than that is how we've been able to assemble an amazing team, cultivate meaningful relationships in a Greater St. Louis community and have a significant impact on the economic development that's happening in state most region.
Henderson: Why do you feel like now is the time to move on into Claflin University?
Warmack: In this line of work, there is never the right time. We have done some remarkable things at Harris-Stowe. As you mentioned, with our enrollment we are the fastest-growing public institution in the state of Missouri, which is up 34%. But if you extrapolate that, last year alone we had a 103% increase in our freshman class. We went from a 2.3 GPA to a 3.0 GPA of our entering class. So all of our metrics are trending in the right way. Increased our retention by 23%. So, it was a hard decision, a hard decision, and you know my family and I prayed about it and really did some soul searching, and this is where God has us to go during this season. And so once again, I wasn't job searching, wasn't looking, wasn't in the market, but this opportunity came. And sometimes when God knocks on that door, you have to be obedient to what he has next for you.
Henderson: Being a young president, I'm pretty sure you have encountered so many challenges. What were some of those challenges?
Warmack: I look at every challenge as an opportunity. If I had to outline some, then in this society as you know “-isms” are real everywhere. So when I say “-isms,” I mean racism, sexism, ageism; all of those “-isms.” We have issues and cultural competencies that go along with that. So, there's sometimes folks with an ideology that think that because of a certain age you may not have some knowledge or skill set. But it's easy to overcome, once you allow your core competencies and your ability to speak for itself. So, I overcame it early in my career, and after six months I think folks learned very fast that it wasn't part of the conversation or the narrative anymore. We work together to continue to build the legacy that we've built thus far at Harris-Stowe State University.
Henderson: What do you think are some of the challenges that still present itself to historically black colleges and universities like Harris-Stowe and Lincoln University in Jefferson City?
Warmack: HBCUs have historically been a leader in this country of producing African American graduates and continue to be. If you think about it, roughly 70% of African American judges come from HBCUs, and a large percentage of the physicians come from HBCUs. So, what we have to do is continue to tell the HBCU story and stop allowing other folks to tell our story for us. HBCUs continue to be a viable place for students to get a transformational education.
I think very specifically to the state of Missouri, the state has to become very serious about investing into the two public HBCUs that are here. Harris-Stowe State University and Lincoln University play a significant role here. Harris-Stowe has been around 162 years of educating the greater St. Louis region and the state of Missouri, and Lincoln has been a leader as well.
Henderson: When it comes to financial resources, some HBCUs are struggling to keep their doors open because of the lack of monetary support. Why is it so important to invest in historically black institutions?
Warmack: I think the bigger question is, “Why not?” If you want to have a diversified workforce, you want to have a skilled workforce and make a difference in this country, then invest in HBCUs. It's a quality return on your investment by investing into fertile ground. For most of our HBCUs right now, I don’t think it’s about financial challenges right now. I just think it’s about continuing to brand and market the great things that are happening in our institutions. The interest is there, and people want to come back to a place where they feel they can get a transformational education and be ready to be a global citizen.
Henderson: Why do you think people are still questioning the relevance of historically black institutions?
Warmack: Are Jesuit institutions still relevant? Are all-women institutions still relevant? What makes America America is just the diverse educational opportunities that it provides for citizens here in this country. HBCUs only make up about 100 institutions out of 6,000 colleges and universities in the country. So, you don't ask if there is still a need for a Catholic institution or a community college. Every institution has its purpose, and I think HBCUs continue to show on every level of the matrix why they are successful. If I'm a business person, I would ask, if they're producing all of these doctors, lawyers and educators top in the country, then the question I want to ask myself is, "How do I invest in that to see how we scale it more to get more productivity out of that?"
Henderson: Why do you think St. Louis needs Harris-Stowe?
Warmack: What is challenging is only 14% of the African American population integrated in the St. Louis region have a bachelor's degree. So that means 85% do not have a bachelor's degree. But then if you look at it further, 97% of the African American population do not have a master's degree. So that means roughly 3.5% of the African American population in the greater St. Louis region have a master's degree. So, we have a lot of work in regards to educating that population.
There's only one school that's mandated by the state in the federal government to serve their population, and that's Harris-Stowe State University.
Henderson: So your last day is July 31; what's next for Harris-Stowe?
Warmack: Harris-Stowe is on solid ground. We're about to open up a new campus in north St. Louis. We're also in the process of building a new 250-plus-bed residence hall, and we'll break ground this summer. We're about to open to start construction on a student union and renovation of our library. I'm confident the team that is there will continue to propel this institution to be one of the leaders — not just one of the best HBCUs in this region, but it will happen to be one of the best small liberal-arts-focused institutions, with a concentration in STEM and business as well.
Henderson: Do you feel like you left anything on the table?
Warmack: Not at all. I'm a former athlete, and I am one of those folks that when I leave, I leave it all there. I can leave here with my head up and say that I know what the institution was when I came in and I know what it is now. I have not one regret, not one. We gave it our all, and I'm proud to see the success that we've had, and I can't wait to see what Harris-Stowe continues to do in the future. It's a great institution. As I stated before, it's been in this region for a long time, and this region needs that institution for this region to continue to be successful.
Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea on Twitter @drebjournalist.
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