New Clayton State president says he can relate to students’ issues

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

T. Ramon Stuart said upbringing keeps him focused, grounded

Clayton State University’s new president T. Ramon Stuart knows firsthand how tough it is to stick with college when you’re struggling financially.

Stuart, the first Black president of the 52-year-old institution, watched his mother “step out” of college because she couldn’t make ends meet in the rural West Virginia town in which he was raised. But she didn’t give up, he says, returning to school years later to finish what she started.

“When she ‘stepped back in,’ she said, ‘I’m not leaving without something in my hand,’” Stuart said, explaining he doesn’t use the phrase drop out because he thinks that can discourage people from coming back. “And that was the catalyst and the fuel to get her associate’s degree.

“When you look at degree completion and the importance of that, we have to make sure all students understand they should not leave this institution without something in their hand,” he said.

Stuart, who became the institution’s fifth president July 1, takes the helm as graduation rates and enrollment are up at the south metro Atlanta university. But like all colleges, the school faces a big test when students return fulltime for face-to-face instruction in August after a hybrid of remote and in-person learning during the last school year because of COVID-19.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke with Stuart about his plans for the new year, what motivates him as a leader and the impact he thinks the coronavirus has had on education. The interview was edited for clarity and length.

Q: You grew up in rural Welch, West Virginia. Tell us a little about yourself?

A: I’m just a little country boy who grew up in the coal fields of southern West Virginia. I’m the son of a single mother who dropped out of high school in the ninth grade. She went to Bluefield State College later, hitchhiking 32 miles in one direction to get to class. I watched my mother go from a GED and a high school dropout all the way to a PhD and serving in the governor’s cabinet.

Q: Your mother had a big influence on your outlook.

A: She always reminded me that we should be working towards something bigger and better. It’s not necessarily where you are, but where you’re trying to go. And being better tomorrow than you are today.

Q: You also learned what it’s like to struggle and stick with college.

A: I’ve walked a mile in these young men and young women’s shoes. I understand what it means for your feet to hurt. And I’m not too big on telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps because I don’t want to make the assumption that people have boots and or straps.

Q: Tell us about your academic journey?

A: I went to West Virginia University where I earned undergraduate and graduate engineering degrees before becoming a professor at West Virginia State at the ripe age of 24. At that time people kept calling me Dr. Stuart and I got tired of correcting them so I went to Ohio State University and obtained my doctorate.

Q: You experienced tragedy during your college years when a fraternity brother was murdered and another committed suicide. Can you talk about the impact that had on you?

A: I realized that life is the most precious thing that you have. Our time on this earth is short. While none of us knows when our sun will set, we all are blessed to be able to make the most of every day we witness the sun rise. I saw boys become men because of these tragedies.

Q: How does it feel to be the first African American president of the university?

A: It’s so exciting. The community seems to really embrace the concept. I also think, though, heavy is the head that wears the crown. Being the first African American president, while it’s significant, it’s the work that I do and the deeds that I accomplish that are going to be very important.

Q: Enrollment is up at Clayton State. How do you keep that momentum and how does that impact graduation rates.

A: If a student is good enough to admit, then that same student is great enough for us to graduate. You have to know the students. Relationships are so key. If I know you during the good times, your more likely to engage me during the questionable times.

Q: Students return to campus next month after COVID-19 interrupted much of college life last year. What has Clayton State done to prepare?

A: We’re going to do two things -- a bunch of prayer and a bunch of preparation. We are taking all the good public health measures, including maintaining high levels of testing, increasing the number of vaccinations and working with people to understand that each individual has to do their part to ensure that the whole is safe and secure.

Q: Since Georgia universities can’t mandate vaccinations, how do you address issues that may arise between those who have and those who haven’t received the vaccine?

A: Our goal is to educate an individual who is civic-minded and has critical thinking skills so that he or she can go through and analyze the different challenges of the world, and then make informed decisions on how to best proceed. We need to continue to talk to people about how you play a significant role.