Jarvis, Charlene Drew 1941–

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Charlene Drew Jarvis 1941

University president, city official

Educating Herself

New Fields to Conquer

Elusive Success

Turned Defeat to Triumph

University President

Other Challenges


Charlene Drew Jarvis is one of Washington, D.C.s most powerful women. A broad range of professional interests and a lifetime of public service have earned her highly-prized spots in publications with such divergent audiences as Whos Who Among Top Executives, The Handbook of State Legislative Leaders, and Whos Who of American Women, and her leadership ability has earned her many awards, including a Doctorate of Humane Letters from Amherst College, her late fathers alma mater. A longtime member of the City Council, she is also the president of Southeastern University, a college catering mainly to African American and Asian students.

A close look at Jarvis professional career shows that her pathway to public service has not been a smooth one. Several times, her efforts to become mayor of Washington, D.C. have been unsuccessful; more than once, she has been criticized by the media for actions she later regretted. But she has never allowed these setbacks to deflect her from her goals. She simply moves on, works harder, and accepts every challenge that comes her way.

Charlene Drew Jarvis grew up in a family whose name was a household word all over America. The person responsible for this prominence was her father, Dr. Charles Drew, a surgeon whose research at Howard University gave the medical world some of its basic knowledge about blood storage and plasma use. Tragically, Dr. Drew died in an automobile accident when his daughter was just eight years old. She was too young then to appreciate the importance of the public service her father had left behind him, but in years to come, she would adapt his legacy to the political arena.

Educating Herself

Charlene Drews sense of public duty had not yet surfaced when she married Ernest Jarvis at age 18. Ostensibly, it was a perfect match. Ernest and Charlene both came from prominent families, though the Jarvis paterfamilias was a prosperous funeral director rather than a surgeon. Both families had lived in Washington, D.C. for generations. And in addition, there was the fact that Charlene and Ernest had been childhood sweet-hearts.

At a Glance

Born July 31, 1941; three siblings. Divorced; two sons, Peter and Ernest. Education: Oberlin (Ohio) College, BA, 1962; Howard University, Psychology MS, 1964; University of Maryland, Neuropsychology PhD, 1971.

Career: Howard University, Statistics Laboratory, 1965-66, Psychological Institute, 1970-71; Washington, D.C. City Council, 1979-; Housing and Economic Development Committee, chair, 1981-; Southeastern University, Washington, D.C, president, 1996-; Metropolitan Council of Governments, chair, 1998-.

Memberships: National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, board member, 1998; National Association of Regional Councils.

Addresses: Office Council on the District of Columbia, 441 4th Street N.W., 7th Floor, Washington, D.C, 20001.

Charlene did not allow her early marriage to stand in the way of her education. Working her way smoothly towards her goal of becoming a neuropsychologist, she completed a B.A. at Oberlin College in 1962, following up in 1964 with an M.S. in Psychology from Howard University, and finally, in 1971, with a Ph.D. she earned at the University of Maryland.

New Fields to Conquer

Jarvis was happy for a few years, but by the end of the 1970s she had made many changes in her life. Her marriage was over, and after seven years as a neuropsychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, she wanted to change careers. Opting for a fresh start, she set her feet on a political track, and seized the opportunity to learn about this new world by coordinating a campaign for Ward 4 incumbent Arrington Dixon, who had decided to vacate his seat and run for council chairman.

Next, Jarvis decided to capture Dixons vacant seat herself. In 1979, with the help of her ex-husband, she was officially elected to the District of Columbia City Council. Her duties were to represent the citizens of Ward 4, which was home to African Americans of all social strata. Members of the citys black political and economic elite lived in Ward 4, as did a broad section of the black middle class, as well as a large number of less affluent working people, most of whom were clustered in the regions southern end. Like many other city areas, the area had its problems. Gang rivalries were causing a steady departure which was to cause a 4% drop in the population within 10 years. Drug sales were growing. And even in the exclusive northernmost neighborhoods, burglaries and car break-ins were becoming more and more common.

Clearly, Ward 4 was crying out for a firm hand. Charlene Drew Jarvis provided it, rising, in 1981, to chair the districts Committee on Economic Development. In an effort to create the job opportunities that could lead to more productive occupations than crime, she turned her attention towards building commercial opportunities for her constituents. As a start, in October of 1981, she introduced legislation to create a pool of investment funds for new ventures by setting up a new enterprise called the Economic Development Finance Corporation. In other measures, she took an active role in matters concerning rent control and interstate banking. And in moves aimed at cost-cutting, she pared the budgets of the agencies under her committee, using the money in better ways to provide desperately-needed improvements for the areas schools.

Elusive Success

Setting her sights high, in 1982 Jarvis presented herself as a candidate for mayor of Washington, D.C., running against incumbent Marion Barry. Jarvis listed several campaign pledges in order to persuade voters to her cause. First, she declared, she would revamp the Department of Housing and Community Development by creating a separate agency to specialize in zoning, building permits, and code enforcement. Next on her list was the Department of Human Services, whose programs to fight tuberculosis, infant mortality and venereal disease she found extremely inadequate. If elected mayor, she vowed, she would set up a public health department to focus purely on these problems. Jarvis also promised to change the citys emphasis on crime reduction. Rather than simply hiring more policemen or stumping for suffer prison sentences to deal with criminals, she said, she intended to focus on social conditions leading to crime, such as unemployment and drug addiction.

Though this was already a long list of proposed improvements, Jarvis had several other suggestions for reducing the deficiencies she saw in Washingtons local government. Mayor Marion Barrys financial management and long term budgeting policies drew comments from her, as did his monitoring of all other departmental activities. Politicians are very good at telling you whats wrong, she told the Washington Post. Many are not very good at really making solutions or finding solutions to the problem. I am, and I really think that is the strength I bring to the mayors office. Unfortunately, none of these developments came to pass. Despite long and energetic campaigning by Jarvis and her team, the voters believed that her three years of political experience were not enough to make her a viable candidate for the mayors post. In the end, her campaign went down in defeat.

Another problem concerned her campaign manager, Woodrow Boggs, Jr. A former assistant dean at Howard Universitys law school, Boggs was no stranger to the political arena. In 1974 he had run a successful campaign for Sterling Tucker, a candidate for City Council chairman. However, during Jarvis 1982 campaign and again in 1984, when she ran for re-election to the City Council, financial manager Boggs came under fire from the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF). Accusations centered around one of the countrys largest interstate banking concerns, which, on the point of starting business operations in Washington, D.C., attempted to lobby the government through the Housing and Economic Development Committee, chaired by Jarvis. The contact person between the two sides was found to be Boggs, who received more than $28,000 from the newly-arrived bank, in return for guiding it through the citys investment rules.

Matters came to a head in May of 1986, when both Jarvis and Boggs were audited by the Office of Campaign Finance and accused of 16 violations of campaign finance law. This allegation was a serious challenge to her reputation, but negotiations and compromises from both sides brought the number of charges down to nine, and Jarvis paid a $10,000 fine.

Though this blemish on her reputation faded away, there was more negative publicity to follow. In 1990, though known to support legislation banning smoking in public places, Jarvis accepted a $2,000 contribution from the Tobacco Institute, the main lobbying arm of the tobacco industry. Her actions raised eyebrows, but did not damage her standing in the community.

A new decade, it is said, sometimes ushers in a new cycle of luck. Unfortunately, the early 1990s did not work out that way for Charlene Drew Jarvis. In 1992, struggling to keep her own Ward 4 seat, she defeated newcomer Alexis Roberson by only 128 votes. Then, the following year, in an effort to become council chairman, she lost this contest in her own ward by more than 1,200 votes. The criticisms leveled against her by Ward 4 voters were serious, centering around the allegation that she was more interested in running for office than she was in improving matters in her own area.

Turned Defeat to Triumph

But Jarvis did not allow this setback in public trust to defeat her. Stoutly setting out to prove these critics wrong, she swung into action. First, she met with her staff and her supporters to brainstorm about increasing communication with local groups. Next, she held leadership meetings to bring together the heads of local civic organizations, advisory neighborhood commissioners, and block clubs, so that a spirit of mutual cooperation would make a program of immediate improvement projects easier. Local areas popular with drug addicts were cleaned up by inmates from a nearby prison; houses used as way-stations for drug dealers were closed. The following January, she showed that she did, indeed, mean business on the anti-drug front by introducing legislation to give police officers the authority to declare any area a drug enforcement zone for five days. This meant that they could now disperse crowds and arrest people who disobeyed official orders to remove themselves.

Another 1994 effort had implications for African Americans far beyond not only Ward 4 residents, but also all Washingtonians. While serving as a member of the local Red Cross board, Jarvis discovered that African Americans formed only 6% of the countrys 1.2 million registered blood donors. Just why was it, she wondered, that black Americans were so reluctant to donate the blood, organs or bone marrow that can bring new hope to so many critically ill patients?

Jarvis was stunned to learn that the key factor in this puzzling reluctance was a widely-circulated story dating all the way back to the 1950 accident that had killed her own father. This myth held that Dr. Drew, critically injured in an automobile accident outside Haw River, North Carolina, had died after being denied a blood transfusion because of his race. Jarvis herself knew this to be untrue. All witnesses, including the doctors who had been fellow-passengers in Dr. Drews car, had always agreed that Dr. Drew had received the best and most prompt emergency treatment available at the time. Furthermore, everyone involved had noted clearly that death had resulted only from overwhelming injuries, and that race had played absolutely no part in the entire tragedy.

Fifty years later, Dr. Charles Drew would surely have applauded his daughter Charlenes interest in the blood storage which had been the focus of his own research. Joining a campaign called African Americans United for Life, she told her fathers story to local groups and health organizations all over the country. Naturally, support for her cause climbed steadily.

Health matters continued to occupy her during 1995, though this time she focused on herself. A longime yo-yo dieter, Jarvis finally kicked the diet habit and became a vegetarian. This was not easy. As a person involved in public service, she not only ate in restaurants daily, but also attended many lavish receptions. Nevertheless, elaborate as these menus often were, she refused to be deflected from her goal of losing weight permanently. Every reception has vegetables, she told the Washington Post, in June of 1995. Every restaurant is accommodating. Yet, she was not without sympathy for other sufferers. I know what its like to be in an endless battle with yourself about what you can eat, she added.

University President

In 1996, Jarvis faced a different type of challenge when she accepted an offer to become president of Southeastern University in Washington, D.C. At the time the school was in the lowest downward spiral it had experienced since its 1879 founding. Its student body, an almost equal mix of Asian and African American students, had dwindled from 1,800 in the early 1990s to 500 by mid-decade, and right down to about 310 by the time she took over as the ninth president to hold the office. To add to its woes, Southeastern was teetering perilously close to losing its accreditationa grave problem that would certainly have forced it to close its doors.

These challenges were pressing enough to merit the full attention of any new president. The fact that Jarvis had not relinquished any of her City Council duties to work at the university brought questions from the newspapers about her double workload. There were also barbs regarding her new salary, which added a healthy $110,000 per year to her previous councilmembers salary of $80,600 per year. Jarvis responded to her critics, as quoted in the Washington A fro-American, by saying, I look at my Presidency as helping me address and cure some of the problems of a city that I have a responsibility for as a Councilmember. So the two work together in tandem.

It did not take long before Jarvis showed herself to be capable of this double workload, and worthy of the elevated income it brought her. Within a year, she had hired both a new academic dean for the university and an associate dean to oversee the operation of the universitys overseas campuses. She appointed a director of grants and fundraising. Further measures included advertising for new students, which instantly raised the enrollment to 815, hiring seven new full-time instructors, and opening Southeasterns computer resources to the citys public library, so that schoolchildren could use them.

Other Challenges

During this time, Jarvis made sure not to neglect the City Council, which also needed her attention, especially after 1997, when the death of Council Chairman David Clarke from cerebral cancer brought her many new responsibilities as Chairman Pro Tempore. Somehow, Jarvis stretched the hours to throw firm support to the idea of a business improvement district (BID) to rebuild the citys unattractive downtown area and make it safer and more attractive for prospective store owners. The agenda included many items requiring careful planning. Stepped-up police protection was one. A campaign for marketing and promotion was another. Other important considerations ranged from urgent priorities like finding ways to help the citys homeless, and adding transportation to make the city center more accessible by public transportation, all the way to the details connected with supplying extra garbage cans and better lighting.

Another initiative, in February of 1997, was Jarvis introduction of a bill aimed at closing violence-prone clubs. Although she had been working on this problem previously, the decisive trigger at this time was the tragic death of 27-year-old police officer Brian Gibson, who was shot by a man evicted from a Ward 4 night club called the IBEX. She immediately called an emergency meeting, after which the clubs liquor license was temporarily suspended.

By 1998, busy as she was, Jarvis was ready to take on more challenges. She became chairman of the board of directors of the Metropolitan Council of Governments, or MCOG, a nonprofit, intergovernmental agency whose purpose is to discuss and find regional solutions to environmental issues, questions involving health and public safety, and transportation. The regions involved are represented by 27 other board members, all of whom are chosen annually from the legislatures of Maryland and Virginia as well as others from the 18 areas surrounding Washington D.C.


Jet, November 11, 1996, p. 39; October 26, 1998, p. 16.

Washington Afro-American, August 10, 1996, p. A3; February 15, 1997, p. A1; April 5, 1997, p. A1; April 19, 1997, p. A1; August 2, 1997, p. B10.

Washington Informer, April 16, 1997, p. 2; April 22, 1998, p. 89.

Washington Post, August 24, 1982, p. C1, September 8, 1982, p. A1; May 29, 1986, p. C3; June 8, 1986, p. A1; October 22, 1986, p. A1; August 16, 1990, p. J3; September 15, 1993, p. A1; Nov 25, 1993, p. J1; January 20, 1994, p. J3; April 10, 1994, p. B5; June 21, 1995, p. E1; August 8, 1996, p. J1; October 7, 1996, p. F3; November 24, 1997, p. C1.

Gillian Wolf

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