“I am convinced the critical thinking, oral and written communication skills and analytic ability I developed in law school and in the practice were the absolute best preparation for leading a higher education institution.”
Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis dreamed of becoming a lawyer from a young age — a dream she turned into a reality after graduating from the West Virginia University College of Law in 1995. While today she serves as the 14th president and CEO of Benedict College, the study of law helped plot her course as an educator and activist.
The three years she spent at the WVU College of Law were among the most challenging yet fulfilling years of her life. At the time, she relocated to Morgantown with her young son, Christopher, and found a strong support system within her family, friends and classmates, including other student parents who would take turns babysitting each other’s children while the parents were in class or studying. Artis was also mentored by members of the Mountain State Bar Association, the oldest minority bar association in the country.
“While minority lawyers in West Virginia were few in number, they had an outsized impact on my life, shaping my view of the legal system and cultivating my commitment to social justice and advocacy,” she says. “Through the Mountain State Bar Association, I developed a strong sense of responsibility for those coming behind me. In retrospect, that commitment to future generations probably planted the seeds for my career in higher education.”
During law school, Artis worked as a law clerk with Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Clarksburg, West Virginia, which she says positioned her well to embark at an insurance defense practice. She then moved home to Beckley, West Virginia, to be closer to her husband and family to work as an associate attorney at Brown & Levicoff, PLLC, where she learned the value of painstaking preparation and remaining a lifelong student.
“As lawyers, we are expected to stand and deliver. You do not get to edit your opening and closing arguments or cut and paste. You simply have to get it right the first time,” she says. “Learning to dictate letters, memos and briefs taught me to gather my thoughts in my head and articulate them clearly.”
While practicing, Artis spent time conducting community workshops for teens and community members. She also volunteered regularly with the NAACP Legal Redress Committee, Women’s Resource Center and West Virginia State Bar Young Lawyers Section.
While serving as an adjunct professor at Mountain State University, Artis coached a moot court team and mentored aspiring lawyers. In 2003, after practicing law for almost a decade, she transitioned to work full time in higher education at WVU Tech. Artis ultimately pursued and acquired a doctorate in higher education leadership and policy from Vanderbilt University.
“While the practice of law was certainly fulfilling, I realized that teaching was, in fact, my passion,” she says. “A single note from a student crystallized my decision to make the shift from law to higher education. I was teaching a course in legal research and writing. At the conclusion of the course, the student handed me a note that read, ‘You changed my life. I never thought I could be a lawyer. After meeting you and taking this class, I know I can.’ I must have read those words a hundred times. It is that simple. Education affords me the opportunity to change lives and touch the future through my students and their families. While the law can compel opportunity, education creates it.”
While Artis has had much success in education, she says her law degree remains her most valuable credential.
“I do not regret earning a law degree or the years I spent practicing,” she says. “I am convinced the critical thinking, oral and written communication skills and analytic ability I developed in law school and in the practice were the absolute best preparation for leading a higher education institution.”
During her time in the higher education arena, Artis says the COVID-19 pandemic has been the single greatest challenge she has experienced.
“We navigated the pandemic in the same way we meet any challenge—with a laser focus on what’s best for the students,” she says.
This focus led Artis and the college’s leadership to financially support students in every way possible. After the campus closed and students were forced to leave in 2020, many traveling to their hometowns, Benedict raised nearly $50,000 in less than 36 hours to purchase more than 120 airplane, train and bus tickets for students. The money was also used to purchase luggage, provide cash for food for students with long layovers and run a 24-hour shuttle service to airports in three states.
When the Benedict faculty learned that many of its students did not own personal computers, the college purchased and mailed hundreds of laptops and hotspots while also providing food subsidies and housing stipends to students living in poverty.
“Nearly 31% of our students have some form of housing insecurity. In the face of those staggering numbers, we knew failure was not an option. We had to support our students in every way we could,” she says.
For her role in the school’s COVID-19 response, Higher Ed Dive recognized Artis as President of the Year.
“With students as our polar star and safety as our guiding principle, we responded to the pandemic in ways that affirmed our commitment to students, protected the lives of our community members and simultaneously addressed the most critical needs of our community,” says Artis. “To be recognized nationally for our efforts was both affirming and encouraging.”
Outside of her work at Benedict, Artis serves on the American Council on Education board of trustees, Council of Independent Colleges board of directors, National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity and United Negro College Fund. She also invests time as a mentor to students, especially other women.
“I believe that to whom much is given, much is required. I am committed to reinvesting in my community with my time, talent and treasure,” she says. “The single greatest way to increase the number of women leading is to create latices upon which the women coming behind us can grow and climb. I take this responsibility very seriously.”
Artis advocates for a variety of policies and organizations that impact the communities she serves, including digital equity and access to broadband for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
“Despite being historically underfunded, these institutions have had an oversized impact on our nation and the world,” she says. “As a graduate of an HBCU — West Virginia State University — and a two-time HBCU president, it is my responsibility to advocate for these institutions in a very clear way. HBCUs are merely 3% of the higher education ecosystem, yet they have produced most of the doctors, lawyers, educators, engineers, religious leaders and legislators of color in this country. We have been punching above our weight for generations, and that story must be told.”