The LeMoyne-Owen College President Johnnie B. Watson can see the end of his road at the college and he’s put a date on it – June 30, 2015.
Watson announced Tuesday morning that he would retire on that date. It’s been quite a journey for Watson, who attended LOC as a student and ultimately served as its 11th president.
“When I graduated from LeMoyne-Owen in 1960, I never could have imagined having the privilege to serve my alma mater in this capacity,” said Watson. “It has been an enjoyable, fruitful and memorable journey thanks to our talented faculty, dedicated staff, loyal alumni and supportive board of trustees.”
LOC Board of Trustees Chair Robert Lipscomb and his fellow trustees will immediately begin charting the College’s future by assembling a committee to conduct a national search for Watson’s successor.
“Our goal is to assemble a diverse team of individuals who care about the College and have a vested interest in its future,” said Lipscomb. “Higher education is changing on every front and we are looking for a leader who has the vision to help the College adapt to the evolving landscape, while ensuring it stays true to its legacy and mission to foster leadership, opportunity, change and justice through education.”
Watson became the first alumnus in the College’s 151-year history to serve as president when he took the reins in 2008 after serving as interim president for two years. During his tenure, LeMoyne-Owen College overcame a crushing deficit to emerge from accreditation probation in 2007.
“We were placed on probation due to fiscal instability, not academic inadequacy,” said Watson. “Our academic standards were never in question.”
Last year the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges reaffirmed LeMoyne-Owen College’s accreditation through 2023.
Lipscomb praised Watson for bringing stability to the College during turbulent times. “Johnnie is a staple in this community who is well known and respected. People know him to be a calm, steady leader and that is what we needed.”
Enrollment at LOC fell to 500 students in 2006. Watson leveraged his life and work experiences to right the ship.
“Challenges are nothing new to me. I overcame rheumatic fever as a small child,” he said. “I also was on the frontlines of the desegregation of the Memphis City Schools in 1973 and was charged with plotting new school bus routes throughout the city. Facing these challenges prepared me to stare down the naysayers and roll up my sleeves and work hand-in-hand with the faculty, staff, students, board of trustees, my fellow alumni and supporters to restore my alma mater.”
Enrollment topped 1,000 students in 2013. The $1.7 million deficit was erased and replaced with an endowment. Campus facilities were renovated and a new, 336-bed residence hall opened last fall.
Watson attributes the success, in part, to his amicable relationships.
“I seek to empower people, build consensus and always treat everyone I encounter with dignity and respect,” he said. “Another important factor was the support and accessibility of the board members, Chairman Lipscomb in particular.”
Lipscomb credits Watson’s leadership style to the College’s resurgence.
“Johnnie brought the LeMoyne-Owen College family to the table and listened before he made decisions,” he said. “He valued everyone on the team and made them feel appreciated. He was a calming force during the storm.”
As Watson thanked the College’s many supporters and donors, he asked them to stay the course.
“Higher education faces growing challenges today and LeMoyne-Owen College is not immune,” he said. “The College and the students need the continued support of our dedicated alumni, friends and the corporate community as we transition.”
Watson stressed that he is under no pressure to retire and is confident that the College’s future is bright.
“Because of the current status of the College, I am confident that the board of trustees will find a replacement with the talent and skill to take LeMoyne-Owen to a higher tier,” he said.
“I have been in education for nearly 55 years. It’s time to pass the torch.”