Dr. Dwaun J. Warmack has an unwavering goal to continue the mission of the state’s oldest HBCU to not just survive but thrive even amid the challenges of a global coronavirus pandemic.
Warmack was inaugurated as Claflin University’s ninth president on Nov. 19, more than two years after he began his tenure in August 2019.
It was an occasion delayed by the pandemic, but Warmack said the university has continued to find success despite the array of changes that caused “one of the worst times that I’ve seen in higher education in my 23-plus years.”
“We’ve been very fortunate the past two years of managing through a global pandemic ... when you think about the unprecedented things that hit our colleges and universities across the country, that forced us to shut down, forced us to send a lot of first-generation college students from low socioeconomic backgrounds back to environments that probably weren’t as conducive to their success.
“For us, that made it slightly challenging to say the least. But in spite of that, we said from the beginning our goal wasn’t just to survive, but it was to thrive, and we have indeed been able to do that during that time,” Warmack said.
He recalled students not being able to return back to campus following their spring break in March 2020, something which he said he had never experienced. It caused the university to have to pivot the way it served its students’ needs, including those without broadband access.
“For us to have to pivot immediately to go to 100% online instruction, when you think about one of the top 10 HBCUs in the country, top liberal arts college in the South. We are known for our liberal arts, high-touch environment. When you lose that to a 100% virtual environment, it transforms pedagogy for faculty and teaching, it transforms students from a distance-learning perspective and the ability to be able to have resources to be able to do the things that they need to do to be successful,” he said.
The university succeeded in providing students with the resources they needed in their new academic environment.
“We were able to provide them with adequate resources by request. There were a lot of multiple hot spots, multiple laptops and multiple other devices to ensure our students were able to be successful,” Warmack said, noting that it was eye-opening to realize the broadband challenges many students faced in some areas.
“I did not know the magnitude of the bandwidth challenges in the rural parts of this country. I had my own privilege coming from urban communities. To get here to see students who are less than 20 miles from here and the entire town not having bandwidth,” he said, was mind-blowing.
The president said the university not only had to adjust to broadband challenges but ensure that faculty had the resources needed to teach in the changed environment. He said the university’s faculty “did an amazing job of being not just passionate about a quality education but compassionate for those outstanding scholars.”
The Detroit native said his immediate plans for the future will be guided by the university’s strategic plan, but will include the promotion of cutting-edge academic enterprise, continued improvement in student success and student engagement, creative technological and global strategies, and consistent fundraising.
“We have been able to in the midst of a global pandemic not just balance a budget but right-size a budget. We have almost doubled our endowment. We have almost doubled our net assets. We’ve have record fundraising. We’ve had multiple largest gifts in institutional history,” Warmack said.
The president, for example, announced a $20 million gift the university received from billionaire author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott on Dec. 16, 2020, the largest gift in Claflin's 151-year history.
Warmack has said there are plans to use it to continue the university’s transformational work in a few specific areas, including academic enterprise, the endowment and strengthening student success and retention.
Claflin plans, for example, include construction of a new state-of-the-art student center.
“Hopefully we’ll break ground in January or February,” Warmack said.
He said the university has also stabilized its enrollment during the pandemic.
“So we have had a lot of success during this time. So for the future, we’re looking to continue to build on the outstanding legacy while we transcend into the future,” the president said.
The 2019-21 President’s Report reveals the university, which has enrollment of roughly 2,000 students, has an endowment of $53 million and has seen increases in several areas, including its total assets, net assets, grants and unrestricted contributions.
The university’s retention rate stands at 76%, with total assets equaling $147,853,775. Net assets stand at $123,271,133, while grants total $19,102,550. Unrestricted contributions stand at $22,273,552.
Warmack said the university’s endowment has grown substantially since his arrival at the university, but work continues to bolster it for the college’s long-term sustainability.
Buildings and fundraising
Warmack has a laser focus on incorporating the community’s success with the university’s success because he said the two are interchangeable.
He said the development of the university’s $23 million student center at the corner of Magnolia Street and Goff Avene will be a place not just for the students, but the community at large.
Its first floor will include a food court and entertainment area with amenities such as an auditorium/movie theater. The second floor will include offices for areas to include, but not be limited to, career services, student activities, residential life and student government. The third floor will include an arcade, E-sports room and a ballroom with a seating capacity of 800.
“We’re part of the community. We have been a pillar in this community for a very long time. If Orangeburg’s successful, Claflin will be successful. So I think we play a dual role in that process. Also, too, our students deserve it (the new student center),” Warmack said.
He said the university recruits students from multiple countries and states who deserve a creative college life experience, particularly since students spend 78 to 82% of their time outside of the classroom.
“If we don’t give them a co-curriculum experience outside of class, then we’ve missed the boat. ... We want to invest in the community that we live. We opened our Center for Social Justice downtown. We wanted to make sure that we invested in the community that we live and work. So the Center for Social Justice in downtown Orangeburg is a community-based center providing access and opportunities to individuals,” Warmack said.
He continued, “We’re looking to open up a new building in downtown Orangeburg as well. I’m not at liberty to discuss what that is, but it’s coming very soon, probably the largest building in downtown Orangeburg.”
Warmack said the quality of faculty and instruction at the university is also noteworthy, with Claflin being home to several amenities, including a one-of-a-kind DNA forensics lab. It was in 2004 when Orangeburg and Claflin University forged a partnership to improve forensic laboratory services in the hope of reducing crime in the area.
“We have quite a few students out of our biotech program that serve as researchers in that space. It is a state-of-the-art lab, and it’s a great collaboration and partnership that’s on this campus,” Warmack said.
He said the college will continue its outstanding work in STEM education.
It was in 2020, for example, that the college and ZOOM announced a commitment to a five-year strategic partnership, with the video communications provider and historically Black university developing a multifaceted foundational program that represents $1.2 million in educational and financial investments.
Program components include, but are not limited to, paid internships during the school year and paid internships as part of Zoom’s summer internship program, along with merit- and need-based scholarships for selected students.
“You’ve seen in the past few years the partnership we announced with Zoom, with Google, with all of these other tech companies. Our students are going out and getting phenomenal jobs within those places. Not just internships, they’re being gainfully employed to go out to do transformational work in society,” Warmack said.
“It just speaks to the volume and the quality of instruction and the faculty and the staff that we have here at Claflin University,” he said.
Warmack said course offerings will increasingly be tailored more to the needs of industry.
“In today’s time, you have to really create your curriculum to industry. What is industry looking for? How do we get students gainfully employed? One thing is recruiting them to being here, but that’s not enough. You recruit students on this continuum: recruitment, matriculation, graduation and then gainful employment. We want every one of our visionaries to be gainfully employed,” the president said.
He continued, “We were the first official Zoom partnership in the country no matter what type of institution. When I went out and had conversations with their COO and the CEO, I said, ‘Hey, you need computer scientists. We have one of the best computer science programs, I would argue, in the country. We will develop our computer science program to have tracks that fit exactly what you’re looking for.’”
He said university’s longtime teacher education program is also noteworthy.
“There’s a need for quality teachers. So we just had the largest induction into our teacher education program. ... So it just gives me hope about why it’s important. You can’t have engineers, you can’t have doctors if you don’t have quality teachers. You think about rural South Carolina and what that means. So we continue to have an outstanding teacher education program and the work that comes behind it,” Warmack said.
Going forward, the president said the university will continue its focus on developing a strong Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math, or STEAM, agenda.
Building a foundation
Warmack replaced longtime President Dr. Henry N. Tisdale, a 1965 Claflin honor graduate who retired in 2019 after 25 years of service at his alma mater. Warmack and his wife, LaKisha, have one daughter, Morgan.
The family came to Orangeburg after Warmack served five years as president at Harris-Stowe University in St. Louis.
Prior to his years at Harris-Stowe, Warmack served as the senior vice president of administration and student services at Bethune-Cookman University.
Warmack also served as associate dean of students at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, and held positions at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, and Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, his alma mater.
He said he realizes he is standing on the “shoulders of giants” as president of Claflin University.
“There were eight folks that came before me that laid that foundation, and what I’m doing is trying to build on it. Dr. Tisdale was an amazing leader, and the presidents before Dr. Tisdale did great work. All of us have a role to continue to build on the legacy that will transcend into the future,” he said.
U.S. News and World Report has ranked Claflin among the top 10 on its list of the nation’s “best historically Black colleges/universities” for the 11th consecutive year this year, but Warmack said his goal is to move it into the top five.
“I want to be in that top five in the country among HBCUs, but also top five in the region among all institutions no matter what type. Within that same vein, you have a very aggressive growth strategy. It may just not be residential because we’re land-locked in a lot of ways. So we have done an amazing job with our online platform,” Warmack said.
He said there is focus on providing the Claflin experience worldwide without students necessarily having to set foot on campus.
“How do we provide classes in the Caribbean locations? How do we provide it on the continent of Africa? ... We’ve just created a new partnership with our biotech program that will be announced. ... We’ll announce the notion of a climate change (concentration) in biotechnology and with Africa University in providing that opportunity for scholars all over the world,” Warmack said.
He said the university will still continue to expand its footprint locally.
“I’m not a liberty to discuss that, but we’ve bought a variety of parcels in this community to allow us to have long-term growth within that space as we develop a master plan,” Warmack said.
He said the college will also be announcing an upcoming capital campaign focusing on five areas, including building the university’s new student center, as well as a new innovative and interdisciplinary academic building.
“That building will focus on, I’m thinking, reimagining higher education. So if I’m a biology major and I’m a mass comm major, how do we do collaborative research to come up with this project that changes the world? So most times in academy we are very departmental focused,” Warmack said.
He said building the university’s endowment, building upon its history in social justice and creating need-based scholarships will be other focuses of the capital campaign.
Warmack said it was Claflin’s rich history that attracted him to the university.
“Claflin has an amazing history, and it has a track record of success. ... The white noise didn’t matter to me. I knew I had the capability to work, but (I was) coming to an institution that was solid, that was on stable ground and that had a rich history of alums committed to this institution,” he said.
He said he and his wife soon came to the conclusion that they were in the right place.
“This is our ministry. This is where God has us to serve now. I tell people when you’re obedient to what God says, everything else manifests. All of the success we’ve had is because we were obedient to listen to what God told us,” Warmack said.
While the 44-year-old knows God is in ultimate control of his destiny, his plan is to retire after seven more years, which would mark his 30th year in higher education.
“I want to be able to enjoy life. That’s why I’m working so hard right now. I’ve worked my whole life. I started working at 14,” he said, noting that, in the meantime, he’s “grateful I’m able to do God’s work.”