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At LeMoyne-Owen, protest gives way to constructive conversation

The South Memphis-based campus of LeMoyne-Owen College has been the setting in the last few days for a real-life drama in which administration moves deemed necessary in challenging times are being adjusted to by concerned members of the student body.

Faced with a million-dollar shortfall in the college’s projected budget, Interim LeMoyne-Owen College (LOC) President Dr. Carol Johnson-Dean and her administrative team determined that seven positions had to be eliminated.

Last Thursday (Nov. 15) in Brownlee Hall, where the administrative offices are housed, protesting students chanted their displeasure, specifically about the firing of Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, a favorite staff member, who served as vice president of academic and student affairs. They demanded that LOC’s board of trustees address their concerns.

Sainna Christian

Student Government President Sainna Christian and her staff largely were responsible for organizing the nature and time of the protest, relying upon social media and word of mouth.

“What I think now in retrospect is that, first of all, we appreciate the fact that Dr. Johnson-Dean took the time to come out and speak with us,” said Christian. “She did not have to do that, but she let us know that she was hearing us. She was willing to listen to our concerns.”

She and other protesting students have “come to understand that there are layers to these issues, things that she (Johnson-Dean) may not be able to peel back for us right now. As it stands now, this is an ongoing conversation where each side is listening to the other.”

LOC students are encouraged to ask questions and to speak out when they feel things are not right,” Johnson-Dean told The New Tri-State Defender during an interview on campus on Tuesday.

“So they had some questions and they had some grievances, which created a bit of a protest because of some changes that were made. We encourage the kind of activism and leadership that produced a W.W. Herenton (former mayor and city schools superintendent) and a Ben Hooks (the late executive director of the NAACP). I came out to address them and to assure everyone that we were acting in the best interest of the school.”

Johnson-Dean put the administration’s moves into this context:

“LeMoyne Owen College is the city’s only HBCU, and as a black college it is a treasure and a precious jewel. But as a private college, we don’t get access to the public resources that some of the other public colleges do. Our graduates don’t make as much money as their graduates do, and it makes us have to work a little harder.

“When cuts become necessary, you can’t just always cut from the bottom and middle, but cuts have to be made sometimes at the top. So that is where we are now.”

“It was more than just one thing we felt needed to be answered,” said Shannon Chambers, who is in her second-year at LOC. She said students had multiple concerns.

“Some of us were unclear about whether the acting president was an interim, or if she had been appointed by the board as our new president. And if she is the new president, when did that action take place?

“Dr. Terrell Strayhorn was fired, and some other changes were made. We weren’t sure that an interim had the power to take that action. Dr. Carol Johnson-Dean came out of her office to speak with us. That meant a lot,” Chambers said.

LOC has hired a financial consultant, who begins work on Monday.

“We have to get our financial house in order,” said Johnson-Dean. “Our projected enrollment for this year was 900, but we only have a little over 800 students enrolled. Enrollment is revenue, and we have to make up for the gap in revenue. We’re going to focus on more recruitment, and I have always said, ‘Recruitment is everybody’s job.’”

In the shakeup, two staffers were fired and a special assistant to the president resigned, changing the structure of the president’s staff. The three posts carried some of the highest salaries, according to Johnson-Dean. Additional firings targeted the resources, finance and IT departments.

Johnson-Dean, former superintendent of Memphis City Schools, was named interim president in August. Her priorities have included interviewing students, college staff and community leaders, along with recruiting and fundraising.

“I go to many churches – Baptist Congress, Church of God in Christ, CME churches, AME churches – and I always ask who attended LeMoyne Owen College, who had family members attending. And you should see the number of hands that go up. Many of the churches have LOC Sunday when they take up a special offering for the college. People are proud of their association with LeMoyne Owen. And we’re going to keep on working, not just to survive, but we want our school thriving,” she said.

Toward that end, Johnson-Dean said, “I go to different schools to recruit. I was at Ridgeway High School talking with the students, and of course, we have the Hollis F. Price Middle College, where high school students can earn nearly a year of college credits when they graduate, free of charge.

“We are building our music department. We have a marching band, two choirs, piano and voice lessons. Cyber-security is now a program of study, and we’re building a strong science program.”

While 10 percent of the alumni give generously (more than $1,000) to the college, Johnson-Dean said the goal is to reach 30 percent.

“So we are in the process of identifying the 5,000 alumni and asking them to partner with us to raise the finances we need,” she said. “I am so hopeful for the future, hopeful for our students, and hopeful in a bright outlook.

“We applaud our students’ desire to make their voices heard. I am proud of them. After all, we are united in our great love and appreciation for our school and its legacy.”

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