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Columbia Business Monthly

‘It Was Going to be Merit or Bust’

Feb 08, 2018 10:19AM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Kristine Hartvigsen
Photography ©2018 Brian Dressler /

It could be one of the unlikeliest places for the daughter of a West Virginia coal miner to land, but Benedict College is where Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis is shattering perceptions as readily as her father once used explosives to blast coal from underground rock.

“In the 1970s, being a coal miner was a great opportunity for people of color,” explained Artis, who in September 2017 became Benedict’s first-ever female president. “The industry was largely integrated. The coal mines were one place that paid a more equitable wage, and a colored person could earn a good living.”

In a community where African-Americans comprised less than 3 percent of the population, Artis encountered early on dismissive attitudes based on her societal prospects as a black female.

“When I was in second grade, I had already decided I wanted to be a lawyer. LA Law was on TV. In class we were asked to express our career desires. I stood up and said I wanted to be a lawyer,” Artis recalled. “Everyone in the classroom laughed. I was shocked that the teachers didn’t do anything. I remember being really mad and thinking, ‘I am going to show them.’”

She did show them, becoming the first in her family to attend college even though little financial aid was available. “I wanted a scholarship,” she said. “It was going to be merit or bust.” Her backup plan was to enlist in the Army. “But when I got the scholarship, that was it.”

Artis first earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from West Virginia State University, like Benedict a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), and later a juris doctorate from the West Virginia University College of Law.

Attending an HBCU was a life-changing experience for the young woman, who grew up well-loved in a small, close-knit family but nonetheless grappled with self-consciousness and insecurity during high school, in part because she looked so different from her white peers.

“That changed at West Virginia State University,” she said. “They had a president who looked like me. It was a small college with opportunities to exhibit leadership, participate in clubs and organizations. They have a good student/teacher ratio with strong engagement and support.”

Artis began her career as a busy civil litigation attorney. During those early years, a friend asked her to teach a class at a local college. It completely changed her life’s trajectory.

“It was a transformative experience for me,” she recalled. “It was like speaking to a jury except that those in the room chose to be there. They wanted to hear what I had to say!”

A short time later, she received a thank-you card from one of the students in that class. “She said: ‘You changed my life.’ She had never met an African-American attorney before. She was studying to be a paralegal, like that was the highest position she could aspire to. She thought that was her only option. The idea that you can change someone’s life, that you can have that kind of impact on an individual’s life in a tangible way, is HUGE, and it’s worth a lot more than money.”

Indeed—although she could take home more money as a practicing attorney, Artis turned her career focus to education and earned a doctorate in higher education leadership and policy from Vanderbilt University. She subsequently went on to spend four years as president of Florida Memorial University in Miami, an institution where she also was the first female to take the helm.

Under her tutelage, the school updated its technology infrastructure, added majors in high-demand fields, expanded its online offerings, and increased revenue from grants and sponsored research by 22 percent. Unrestricted gifts (funding at full discretion of the president) increased 20 percent, and restricted gifts (specifically directed) increased by an astounding 38 percent.

When she arrived at Benedict last fall, Artis commenced an assessment of existing resources at the school. That assessment showed that the college could most effectively serve a student population of about 2,000.

“Our goal at Benedict College is to ensure that our students have the very best,” she explained. “The faculty/student ratio right now is about 17 or 18 to 1. I would prefer it be about 16 to 1.”

During a period in which her predecessor succeeded in expanding enrollment and making numerous capital improvements, Benedict achieved a record high of 3,000 enrollees. From 2012 to 2015, however, the school ultimately experienced a decline in revenue of about $10 million. The unprecedented growth had come at a cost that needed to be mitigated.

In an unconventional move, Artis directed that Benedict in 2018 cap enrollment at 2,000 and, at the same time, actually lower tuition in a strategy to strengthen and stabilize its financial position.

Artis believes that lower tuition will attract more potential enrollees, yet, at the same time, create a sense of urgency because high-quality applicants would know the enrollment window would close at 2,000. Artis also plans to conduct greater outreach and engagement in the business community.

“Benedict has a very strong alumni. I have been impressed with their level of engagement and support,” she said. “Where I don’t see a strong source of revenue is from foundations and the business community. We have failed to make the case for why we matter. … We have not demonstrated a track record with regard to workforce. We are reviewing and evaluating all our curricula. If we can articulate the case and demonstrate it, I think we will see an uptick.”

Artis is hardly naïve to her challenges.

According to the American Council on Education, fewer than 30 percent of college presidents nationwide are female. The vast majority are older white males. Once again, Artis, 47, finds herself looking quite different from her peers.

“There’s a double challenge for me, because I am younger. I have school-age children,” she explained. “When people see me in a different context, I am certain it comes through people’s minds the question of ‘can she be effective?’ … Often, people underestimate you based on what you look like. I use that to propel myself in many ways. You will not see anyone more prepared or who will work harder than me. You will never out-work me. My work ethic derived over time.”

Artis is married to Selby Artis, a procurement specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The couple has a 12-year-old son, Jayden, and 9-year-old daughter, Jocelyn.

“I have yet to achieve what they call ‘balance.’ There is never a perfect balance,” Artis said. “If I am not home with my children, I am at work. I think about where am I needed at that moment. I strive to make wise decisions about what is most important in the moment. … And coffee helps.”