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Growth in enrollment, degree programs mark Harris-Stowe president's first year

Harris-Stowe State University president Dwaun Warmack joined "St. Louis on the Air" as part of its series on regional institutions of higher education.
Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

Dwaun Warmack became president of Harris-Stowe State University in July 2014. Calling himself a “change agent,” Warmack told “St. Louis on the Air” last November that his first focus was on assessment: understanding the university he meant to guide.

Now, he is moving from the ‘assessment’ phase of his presidency to the ‘action’ phase. Since last November, Harris-Stowe has won the ability to offer graduate degree programs, increased enrollment, and made what Warmack called a “bold statement” on the local conditions of racial injustice exposed by the death of Michael Brown.

Only weeks after Warmack took his position, Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson. The shockwaves of that day were strongly felt at Harris-Stowe, a historically black university, and for Warmack necessitated a quick review of what role the school should play in the community.

“Roughly 40 percent of our students last year was from the north county area,” Warmack said, and “when they came to school, that was still part of their life. And so we were intentional about serving as the intellectual think tank to help the community heal.”

In the aftermath of Brown’s death and the protests that followed, Warmack strove to make Harris-Stowe a place where students could express grief, cope with trauma, and work to rectify exposed injustices.

Founded in 1857 as a whites-only teachers’ college, the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education prompted Harris College’s merger with Stowe, the area’s teaching college for black students. “Now, in 2015, it’s a rich institution that has a focus on educating the greater St. Louis community,” Warmack said.

Harris-Stowe is designated as a member of the U.S. cadre of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Warmack said that the school is not exclusive—in fact, it’s quite diverse—but that “There’s a need here, specifically in this community,” for a historically black college. Of the 577,000 African Americans in the St. Louis area, Warmack said, only 14% have bachelor’s degrees, and less than 4.2% have a master’s degree.

A little over a year after assuming the presidency, and with time to reflect on Harris-Stowe’s extensive community involvement following Ferguson, Warmack sees the university as a catalyst for supporting the education of St. Louis’ “underserved, historically marginalized community” of African-Americans. Beyond serving as a safe space for discussion and the voicing of grievances, Harris-Stowe has undergone big changes in order to improve academic excellence and social impact.

“As the only historically black college in this city…we have a civic and moral responsibility to be engaged in these types of endeavors.”—not just for students, but for the St. Louis community at large.

Along with facilitating community dialogue, Harris-Stowe adopted two elementary schools in the Ferguson-Florissant school district. Harris-Stowe students—50-70 of them, Warmack said—interact with younger students, reading with them and helping them study, telling them about college, and during the worst of their community’s unrest walking them to and from school.

Internally, the school has grown substantially in just the past year. From offering 14 degree programs in July of 2014, Harris-Stowe has added five additional degree programs and 11 new majors. Warmack cited a major in urban ecology and sustainability, for which the university works with the St. Louis Regional Chamber. A program in finance features a simulated trading floor, and students will learn from professionals thanks to a partnership with Wells Fargo.

The ability to offer graduate programs, Warmack said, is a huge evolution. “That’s monumental, and it’s institutional- and community-changing.”

As of now, Harris-Stowe’s new features include what Warmack called a “robust social justice institute” that focuses on teaching intercultural competency, race relations, community policing, and criminal justice. An initiative focusing on African-American males measures success in college graduation rates, civic engagement and career progress.

Academic program growth and a larger local profile undoubtedly contributed to a spike in applications and enrollment this year. “We had a record number of applications. We had 3,200 applications this year,” Warmack said, from which they accepted about 1,500 students. “Last year we had 1,200 applications.”

Harris-Stowe’s low cost may also be a contributing factor to its high application volume. Warmack said that the university has one of the most affordable tuition structures in the entire country; a student from St. Louis can receive a bachelor’s degree from the university for $5,200 a year, total—tuition, fees, and books included. Pell Grant recipients can collect over $5,730 for a school year, Warmack said, so Pell-eligible students in the area can go to Harris-Stowe and actually get a refund of $2000 with their bachelors’ degrees.

Warmack insists that the cost does not signify a sacrifice in student quality. He has raised about $1.5 million, he said, to offer scholarships to “the brightest and the finest.”

“It allows us to be competitive, to go out and get that top student.”

Partnering with local and regional institutions, expanding academic programs, reinforcing the university’s status as a pillar of the St. Louis community—“It’s been an amazing run. It’s been a great year,” Warmack said. And as Harris-Stowe continues to grow as an educational institution and a catalyst for change, Warmack is looking far ahead.

“Our ultimate goal is to be one of the premiere regional institutions in the country,” he said, “that just happens to be an HBCU.”

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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