Is UNC System Building Upon Leadership Takeover of Elizabeth City State?

Last week, University of North Carolina System President Margaret Spellings praised Elizabeth City State University as an institution ‘turning the corner.’ From her view, the school’s gains in enrollment, private giving and academic development had exceeded expectations and were signs of a campus moving from embattled to empowered.

But the system is preparing to install a new leadership team at the university, and it is clear that the executive shifting, finance finessing and legislative jockeying of recent years, which we all thought were done following ECSU’s successes this fall, remain in an effort to marginalize the university.

ECSU Chancellor Thomas Conway announced to the campus this week plans for a new campus working group the with specific charge to analyze finances at the institution and provide oversight of operational functions like human resources, budgeting and academic affairs.

The new team will install a new layer of oversight over the chancellor’s office, which in effect, will create either a co-leadership structure on campus or another level of reporting for the school with direct ties to the system office beyond the typical reporting culture which every other college in the system follows.

Such a group would closely mirror the team which came into ECSU last year, which eventually led to Dr. Conway’s appointment. It also laid the foundation for ECSU to be included in state legislation which reduced annual tuition to $1,000 per year for in-state students and $5,000 annually for out-of-state students.

While there has been no formal announcement, sources say that ECSU executives and board members have been briefed on the changes, which are likely to be announced tomorrow and effective immediately.

There is a familiar chorus that goes along with HBCU rumors that goes like “alumni need to stand up and reject this,” or “the chancellor should resign and call out the system for all of the back door dealing it has done to harm ECSU.” Except that even if this rumor proves to be true in any form, it will be sold to campus stakeholders and the NC higher education community as something good for the campus.

And we’ll believe them. Just like we believed $500 a semester would be a good look because ECSU would get $5 million over the next two years – as if the legislature wasn’t developing its community college pipelines and minority scholarship programs at other institutions throughout the state at the same time.

Additionally, the system is also launching efforts to write a new K-12 through post-secondary strategic plan for the state. If trends hold true as they have in other states, that report will inevitably reveal that the state doesn’t do enough to educate its poor and minority students, that access and affordability to college education are major issues, that rising industries in the state are out of alignment with the missions of smaller liberal arts campuses, and that bigger PWIs should broaden educational opportunities to help North Carolina meet its goals.

All of these elements do not bode well for Elizabeth City State. And what if the new team comes in to suggest that the school is on shaky fiscal ground ahead of a dramatic tuition reduction? Should we expect a retirement announcement from Conway? And what to make of the scholarships and partnerships around the state designed to recruit minority students, and to build industrial pipelines for graduates?

With these things, what will continue to build ECSU as an attractive four-year degree destination?

But beyond Elizabeth City’s brand integrity, a disruption and retirement from Dr. Conway would mean four chancellors in six years, and would stoke renewed fears of instability just months after ECSU posted its first enrollment increase in seven years, launched its first fully online degree, and have received more than $1.3 million in public and private grants for training in engineering and secondary education.

The UNC System should abandon any plans to disrupt what is clearly working at ECSU, and develop a strategy to invest in its growth, instead of plotting for its demise. If ECSU is as successful as Spellings said, there’s no reason for a working group. There’s no reason for a co-chancellorship, or for board members to weigh in on the campus’ strategic vision or operations. The future plan may be for North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central to be the state’s only public HBCUs, but ECSU doesn’t deserve the indignity of leadership interference or financial inquiry after all it has done just to stay in business.

State leaders should either grow the school or consolidate it, but don’t put the ECSU community and Black America through a false narrative of underperformance, or fake support for its success.

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