Making history as the ‘right person at the right time’

A Q&A with Charles Gibbs, the incoming president of the Metropolitan College of New York.

Metropolitan College of New York’s incoming President Charles Gibbs

Metropolitan College of New York’s incoming President Charles Gibbs Derek White/Getty Images for Disney

Two weeks ago, Metropolitan College of New York announced Charles Gibbs would become the college’s seventh president on July 1. The school’s board Chair Gary Jenkins, who is New York City’s former Department of Social Services commissioner, said in the press release, “Dr. Gibbs exemplifies visionary leadership, with vast experience and a deep commitment to higher education, making him the perfect choice to steer MCNY into a new phase of growth and innovation.” 

Gibbs comes to the school after serving as CEO of 100 Black Men of America. His prior higher education experience included high-level roles at Clark Atlanta University, Miles College and Howard University.

“His appointment as the college’s first African American leader marks a significant milestone and underscores our dedication to diversity, equity and inclusion,” Jenkins said.

Gibbs spoke with City & State about his 25 years of experience in higher education, his guiding values as a man of faith and how he'll start his tenure. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you preparing for your first day of work on July 1? Any nerves?

My wife said to me this morning, “Honey, are you scared?” I read a quote, that if your dreams don’t scare you, then you’re not dreaming big enough. I temper the nerves with great aspiration and opportunity. Great optimism. In every person’s life there comes a moment when it’s the right person, at the right time, for the right assignment. I’m the right person at the right time for the right assignment to propel MCNY to even greater heights. That comes with a little butterflies in your stomach.

What are the values guiding your new mission as president? 

My faith is the first guide. Making sure that I stay grounded and believe that there’s a higher power and that I didn’t get here alone. It took a village of individuals praying for me. Even my old special ed teacher prays for me as I’ve gone through the ranks of higher ed. Being in a higher ed for over 25 years, I’ve held various positions throughout the three historically Black colleges that I’ve worked at: my alma mater, Howard University, Clark Atlanta University, which is the largest member United Negro College Fund institution in the country … and Miles College in Fairfield, Alabama. Each one of those steps have prepared me for this level. Being grounded to the experiences that I’ve had and thanking God for the opportunity that has brought me thus far is one of my leading principles.

What initiatives are you prioritizing?

It would be misleading if I sat here and said here’s a list of things I want to accomplish in 30, 60, 90 days. As a candidate, you know less than you should know about the institution. As the president-elect, it is important for me to open up the hood and look at the engine, kick the tires and really see, internally, the health of the institution. Understanding where we are, that’s a priority for me, to really understand the full makeup of my institution. That goes from students, to faculty, to staff to even our security. I’m not a top-down manager, I’m a bottom-up leader, which means I want to hear from the person that checks IDs that are coming through the doors and what their experiences have been within this institution, all the way up to my governing body, members of our board of trustees and their experiences. Now, we can collaboratively govern this institution to the next level as a priority. Student engagement is another important priority for me as well.

Let’s be very clear. MCNY is not monolithic, however, we’re not immune to what other institutions of higher ed have experienced in terms of enrollment challenges post-COVID. Making sure that we are able to rebrand ourselves, not just from an online model, which was strategic for COVID and when we had to be thrusted into the online world. There’s a great deal of students who still like that brick and mortar. How do we find the balance to support students who learn asynchronously but also those who like personal engagement with faculty, colleagues and comrades on our campus? Fundraising. Building our strategic partnerships, that is one of the things my board is very excited for.

Your school's mission statement mentions this, but what does it mean to have a “purpose-centered education”?

Audrey Cohen, our founder, had a vision. We’re 501(c)(3), nonprofit four-year private institution. We were established to fight against the war on poverty. Audrey Cohen wanted to make sure that the students that study at this institution study with a centralized purpose that they identify either in their workspace or in their community, that they can develop research around and develop solutions to combat. Our purpose-centered education is that every student has to engage in what we call a constructive action. A constructive action allows you to collaborate with your employer on an identifiable problem, whether it’s in processes, efficiencies, services and programs that they’ve identified. They then collaborate with their professors, employers or community service organizations to develop a constructive action to address that problem. How do we come up with a solution that we can monitor, measure and implement that can make this program or process more efficient? The purpose-centered education focuses on a specific area of concern for the student that they can take back to their employer or to their community, social organization, that they have researched. It’s not anecdotal. It is researched, tested and now ready to be implemented as a solution to a concern.

How have previous leadership experiences prepared you for your new position as president?

I have 25 years experience in higher ed, working with a variety of students, administrators, governing bodies. At Miles College, we were an open enrollment institution, which means year round we admitted students, touching some of the most vulnerable students in our population. At Howard University, being the mecca of Black intelligentsia, we deal with a very active engaged student population from a social justice perspective. One of our core values is about social justice, which is where our founder Audrey Cohen really developed that grit. It was about social justice for the less fortunate. Our students fight for that. Having been at an institution with such progressive administrators, faculty, staff and students aligns very well with the mission of Metropolitan College in New York, where I have served as the vice president for student affairs, dean, vice provost, understanding the values of fundraising for those particular programs.

Clark Atlanta University is in the heart of the … Atlanta University Center, which is the largest concentration of three historically Black colleges and universities, which are Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, and Morehouse College. Clark Atlanta University, out of the three, is the only research one institution and the only institution within the AUC that offers advanced degrees and your doctorate degree in higher ed and other forms.

For me, having that broad range of experiences at these three great institutions, two of them being highly active R2 research institutions, there’s aspirations to be obtained here at Metropolitan College in New York. We are serving a similar population with a similar mission. With my experiences in enrollment management, strategic partnerships and fundraising, I think these things are at the paramount of our growth strategy, whether it’s in our lower Manhattan campus or our South Bronx campus, they intersect in terms of my strengths and my ability to grow these two campuses. In summation, everything that I’ve done in my higher ed career has led me here. Remember, I told you the right person at the right time at the right assignment? All of that is a combination that has led me here.