RALEIGH — Everett Ward wrapped up his work in the president’s office of St. Augustine’s University on Monday around 8 p.m. then went for a stroll on the deserted campus.
It was a lovely evening, and as Ward walked, he could see the signposts of his life: the historic St. Agnes hospital building, now a shell with trees sprouting inside, where he was born. The dorms where he lived and the campus spots where he wooed his college sweetheart and future wife, Cassandra. In 2011, his family would seek solace on St. Augustine’s grounds after her funeral.
Even the sidewalks have meaning. Ward’s father, who attended St. Aug’s, poured them as a Raleigh concrete contractor.
“It’s everywhere,” Ward says of his emotional tie to the university. “It’s literally everywhere.”
Ward, a former Department of Transportation administrator and state Democratic Party director, was named interim president last month. Though he has no higher education leadership on his resume, he is tasked with turning around the historically black university with a proud past but a precarious financial future.
For months, the university has been in chaos, the subject of a negative audit, a review by its accrediting agency and an investigation by the federal Department of Education. Students have left in large numbers, as have administrators who were fired by the former president, Dianne Boardley Suber.
Employees and faculty had described an atmosphere of secrecy and retaliation. The turmoil built until Suber was ousted by the board of trustees in April.
It is perhaps the most challenging point in St. Aug’s 147-year history.
And so Ward, 55, who earned a Ph.D. last year in hopes of becoming a college professor, now is on a personal mission to save St. Aug’s.
“People understand that I’m not doing this because of a job,” Ward said. “I’m doing this out of passion and love for my alma mater and my family alma mater. And that goes a long way, I think.”
When Ward traverses the campus, he stops to greet everyone he sees, from legendary track coach and Athletic Director George Williams, to professors to secretaries. He gives a hearty wave to a groundskeeper on a riding lawnmower, yelling, “Looks good!” before telling a visitor, “Mr. Hill keeps everything immaculate on campus.”
Inside, the history buff has decorated his walls with snapshots of St. Aug’s past. There’s a photo of the Falcon basketball team, with Ward’s 6-foot, 6-inch father, William, wearing the No. 16 jersey.
Ward describes an old photograph of St. Aug’s graduates in officer training school in Iowa, just before World War I. Then there’s a 1982 picture of Ward in cap and gown, flanked by two storied St. Aug’s presidents – Prezell Robinson and James Alexander Boyer.
Underneath, a quote from Boyer is blown up in large letters: “To be a college man or woman carries with it obligations with respect to speech, thought, conduct and purpose – obligations which you cannot escape.”
Ward embraces his obligation with the eye of a seasoned manager and a politician’s touch.
With broad and deep connections in Raleigh, he has loaded his schedule with meetings with community leaders, business executives and elected officials. He has also reached out to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting agency reviewing the university’s finances, and to the U.S. Department of Education, which will send investigators to campus next week.
On his first day, he told faculty that he and the trustees support efforts to start a Faculty Senate – years after such a group had been disbanded. It’s one development that shows there’s a new spirit of collaboration, said Harold Jeffreys, a 46-year veteran music professor. “Sometimes just being at the table can change the complexion of things,” Jeffreys said.
Ward has also begun to assess St. Aug’s overall organization, reviewing every job among the 200 professors and staff members and the 100 adjunct faculty. He has frozen hiring. He hopes to avoid furloughs but said some positions may be turned into 10-month jobs instead of 12.
The “tighten and double tighten the belt” message has been sent, he said.
“I have made a concerted effort to inform the faculty, inform the students and the alumni of our true financial picture and let them know that we need everybody engaged,” Ward said. “The future of the institution depends on everyone contributing to it.”
Hope Williams, president of the N.C. Independent Colleges and Universities, said Ward’s style is to gather information, listen carefully and then make a decision.
“I feel so good about how he’s moving forward,” she said. “His manner and approach are reassuring in and of themselves.”
A key to St. Aug’s survival will be having strong support from alumni, who have previously complained about being left on the sidelines.
Graduation weekend and alumni gatherings recently brought a large turnout of alumni who packed a question-and-answer session with Ward, who was pressed about the university’s financial health, its endowment, enrollment downturn and the stadium complex, which was previously halted because of a lawsuit.
Ward told them he couldn’t answer questions about what happened before April 23, when he stepped into the job. “I can assure you that under my leadership there will be strong accountability, there will be total transparency and there will be ethical leadership in everything that we do,” he said he told them.
“They were quite satisfied with his answers,” said Pattye Brown, president of the National Alumni Association.
Brown said several alumni told her they would be opening their checkbooks again for St. Aug’s. They see Ward as family, she said. “He is committed to having us on board as collaborative partners, and we have accepted the challenge to do just that,” she said.
Ward has connections to every generation of alumni. If he needs to know about St. Aug’s in the 1940s, he calls his Aunt Madeline. For the ’50s, he rings up Aunt Gladys. He and his sister, Felecia Ward Hardy, have the ’70s covered.
Planning is underway for a large fundraiser in September that will involve students, alumni and the community. Ward said it wouldn’t be a formal banquet with hours of speeches, but an active walkabout on campus.
By then, St. Aug’s trajectory may be more clear. Enrollment has not been finalized for fall. The university keeps the admissions process open until August, when the semester starts. Recruiting is key to turning around the numbers, and Ward asked students to talk up the university with their circle of hometown friends.
He’s doing his part, too. Two weeks ago, Ward said he met with an anxious couple whose daughter was considering transferring. After more than an hour, they agreed their daughter would stay. “There’s no substitute for us talking to people and putting to ease any fears,” Ward said.
Trustees have put Ward in the job for 12 to 18 months before a permanent leader is chosen. They have left the door open for him to apply for the position, but he said he’s not focused on that. “When you don’t need anything, you are very comfortable,” he said. “I don’t need anything, so I’m not lobbying.”
Since 2010, Ward’s mother, father and wife have died. “When you’ve buried as many people as I have over the last three or four years, you realize we’re here but a moment, and your priorities get placed very quickly,” he said.
The priority now is St. Aug’s financial health. And for that, Ward is lobbying.
“I will die over top of that desk, until everything in me is gone, before I see St. Augustine’s fail.”