How Good Does Elizabeth City State Have to Be Before the UNC System Leaves it Alone?

Just over 1,800 donors gave Elizabeth City State University more than $200,000 in gifts for scholarship and institutional support during the school’s second annual ‘Day of Giving’ micro-campaign challenge. This year’s total beat last year’s total amount raised by $82,000, and outpaced officials’ goal for this year by more than $30,000.

So what more does ECSU have to do to show its vitality, interest from stakeholders and outright proof of life for the University of North Carolina System to stop tampering with the school’s leadership and infrastructure? Two days after the record-breaking fundraising goal was announced, ECSU Interim Chancellor Karrie Dixon announced a slate of new executive hires.

While its unusual for an interim president to make any major hires, it’s not so much in North Carolina and specifically ECSU. The appointments all but affirm that Dr. Dixon will be named as the permanent chancellor (despite the system announcing a sham search) in a matter of months (the fifth in seven years), much in the same way that former chancellor Thomas Conway was installed and eventually forced outretired from the post in 2017.

But unlike other schools where leadership turnover is presented as an antidote to institutional struggles, ECSU is improving. Enrollment is up, fundraising is up, and its programs are gaining attention and resources. But seemingly, everyone responsible for the turnaround is being swapped out or answering to new leadership, which means changes of direction in key areas of the campus, which means disruption, which inevitably means failure by instability.

It was one thing to see UNC officials blatantly aiming to blow ECSU off the map, and wondering why students and alumni were virtually silent on the issue. But its another for Dr. Dixon, whose career has largely been in executive roles within the UNC System, is about to have her career ruined by the same system which is convincing her to overhaul a functioning product with an eye towards malfunction.

It was just two years ago that the News & Observerghostwrote an editorial for the UNC-GA about ‘refocusing’ ECSU’s mission amid leadership scandal.

UNC officials would do well at this point to look not at closing, but at changes in direction to keep this institution, in an isolated part of northeastern North Carolina, open and serving the people. That could mean refocusing its mission from one of general education to something more specialized such as training in healthcare or computers or other technical specialties. ECSU, after all, is an important employer in the area, and its facilities are of value.

Last month, East Carolina University announced its plan to open a new school of Rural Public Health, designed to focus on health disparities faced by residents in North Carolina’s eastern region.

The new school will initially combine departments and centers already in existence at ECU – public health, health education and promotion, biostatistics, health services and information management and the Center for Health Disparities. These departments are currently spread throughout three separate buildings on the university’s two campuses – the Brody School of Medicine, the College of Allied Health Sciences and the College of Health and Human Performance.

So what happens to ECSU’s existing department of natural science, pharmacy and health professions which could have been expanded to meet these same needs? Will the UNC System look to increase partnerships between the historically black and predominantly white institutions? Or will the new school siphon off ECSU enrollment slowly and add to the false narrative that ECSU can’t be saved?

Maybe Dr. Dixon’s career is in good hands by following the directions of the UNC System in running ECSU. But this isn’t about the progress or failure of her individual career; it is about a school that is moving back towards productivity and a state wagering that its alumni aren’t aware enough to sue the system for disparate treatment of a black school, that Dr. Dixon is loyal enough to spur enough changes so that ECSU’s improvement grinds to a halt as a result of disruptive leadership done in the name of innovation, and that by the time anyone realizes what’s really happening, it will be too late for anyone to do anything about it.

Anyone except another new chancellor, that is.

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