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Updated: Feb 11

Clarence D. “Clay”Armbrister, currently a lawyer President of Johnson C. Smith University (JCSMU), an Historically Black College and University in Charlotte, North Carolina, announced plans to retire in June 2023. He became the 14th President of JCSMU on January 1, 2018 following a career in higher education that included senior vice president at Temple University and chief of staff and senior vice president at Johns Hopkins University. In announcing his appointment as President, the Board Chair noted, “We believe his varied back-ground in education, finance, government and law brings an exceptionally broad lens to the increasingly complex demands of the changing landscape in higher education today.”

Following graduation from the University of Michigan School of Law, he worked in the public finance department of Saul, Ewing, Remick & Saul where he moved up to partner. He left in 1994 to enter government, like other lawyer presidents, serving as Philadelphia city treasurer and chief of staff to the mayor. He was also the managing director of the Philadelphia School District. President Armbrister also taught as an adjunct faculty member at the Beasely School of Law at Temple University (municipal finance). He was also president of Girard College, a unique college preparatory boarding school for students K-12.

During his time at JCSMU, Armbrister led the University to a more active role with the growth and development of the Historic West End, and he was able to increase support for JCSU from the corporate community. The first had to navigate the University out of accreditation hot water by getting the school off of probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which he did. For more information about his initiatives – including student/alumni employment and increasing the endowment, listen to an interview on the podcast On Life and Meaning.

Currently there are 101 HBCUs located in 21 states plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, with a split of 50 of these schools public and 51 private not-for-profit Between the 2000s and the 2010s, the number of lawyer presidents at HBCUs quadrupled. Today there are 21 lawyer presidents of HBCUs, representing 20% of the HBCU campus presidents. For more information about lawyer presidents of HBCUs and a brief history of HBCUs see, May it Please the Campus: Lawyers Leading Higher Education.

When Dr. Michael Batson stepped down as President of Rockland County Community College (RCC) in New York in 2022 to become the President of Tri-C or Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio, New York lost its sole lawyer leading a community college.

Appointed to lead RCC in 2017, Batson was known as, “…a popular and accessible figure whose accomplishments include launching the Hospitality and Culinary Arts Center in Nyack, introducing a guided pathway academic school model, adding Career and English Skills Academies to address middle-skills workforce needs, to name a few.” Further, “Under his leadership, the college [has] secured $30 million in grants, capital, and other fundraising efforts, including back-to-back Title V Developing Hispanic-Serving Institution awards, the largest grants in RCC’s 62-year history.”

In announcing his appointment as President at RCC, Marty Wortendyke chairman of RCC's board of trustees, called him "a visionary and compassionate educational administrator." Prior to his appointment at RCC, Michael Baston was vice president of student affairs and associate provost at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, New York. Before that he was dean of student development and campus life at Berkeley College. A graduate of Brooklyn Law School, Batson began his career as an attorney representing various educational institutions and social justice organizations. His work with academic clients led him to pursue a second career in academics, both as a professor of legal studies and business and as a student affairs administrator. In addition to his JD, Batson holds an EdD from St. John Fisher College.

Today, Dr. Batson is chair of the Black Male CEO Educators network and a member of the American Association of Community Colleges Board of Directors, chairing its Commission on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. In 2021, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Batson was selected to participate in the Education Design Lab as a Designer in Residence to reimagine the role of higher education in closing racial and economic opportunity gaps. Batson was also part of the inaugural class of Aspen Presidential Fellows.

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Appointed as the 10th President of CUNY’s Brooklyn College in 2016, Michelle Anderson previously served as the Dean of CUNY Law School from 2006-2016. Prior to joining CUNY, Anderson was a law professor at Villanova University School of Law, where she became a leading legal scholar on rape law and sexual assault.

Following graduation from Yale Law School with a JD, Anderson clerked for Judge William A. Norris on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. After the clerkship, she entered academia working in the Appellate Litigation Program and Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center where she earned an LLM in Advocacy.

At CUNY Law School, Anderson enjoyed a successful tenure as dean where she is credited with, among other things, “…overseeing a period of great renewal and transformation in development, facilities, programs, and recognition…CUNY Law strengthened its public interest mission, increased its academic standards…. CUNY School of Law moved from a converted junior high school building in Flushing, Queens, to a new LEED gold-certified facility in Long Island City. CUNY Law launched a number of groundbreaking initiatives, as well, including the Pipeline to Justice Program, the Incubator Program, the Community & Economic Development Clinic, the Center for Urban Environmental Reform, the Center on Latino and Latina Rights & Equality, and the Sorensen Center for International Peace and Justice.”

But long before, as a college student, in 1988 Michelle Anderson disrupted the Miss California beauty pageant. Spending a year and half along with financial resources to enter the pageant, just as the winner was about to be announced, Anderson pulled out a banner that read, “Pageants Hurt All Women.” This protest actually exemplifies many traits of good college presidents – speaking out for what they believe is right, taking risks, strategic planning, and having the confidence to say and do what others may be thinking but are not willing to act on. Moreover, Anderson’s action suggested a youthful but ultimately enduring commitment to education and equality.

President Anderson has received numerous awards and recognition for her educational leadership, including City & State’s “Above & Beyond Award for Outstanding Women in Public Service” at the organization’s gala honoring the 25 most powerful women in New York who have demonstrated exemplary leadership in their field and made significant contributions to society; the “Susan Rosenberg Zalk Award” by the Feminist Press; and by the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society at the University of Albany, with its “Public Service Leadership Award.”

In announcing her appointment as President, Board of Trustees Chair Benno Schmidt (former President of Yale University and former Dean of Columbia Law School) and Chancellor James B. Milliken (also a lawyer) stated, “Dean Anderson brings to Brooklyn College a record of extraordinary academic leadership and success, a strong commitment to students, an exemplary record of public service and a deep belief in Brooklyn College’s mission of academic excellence and opportunity.” The search Committee was chaired by noted attorney and trustee Barry F. Schwartz.

The fact that the search committee and board of trustees were headed by lawyers, certainly created a welcoming environment for qualified lawyer leaders to navigate through the presidential search process, something that is not the case on every campus. While her legacy at Brooklyn College is still being written, Michelle Anderson has proven to be an excellent higher education leader.

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