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No. 7: Conway brings stable leadership to ECSU

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Editor’s note: Our lookback at the top stories of 2016 continues.

Elizabeth City State University is ending 2016 with stable leadership.

That's a lot more than it could say in 2015.

This week marks roughly one year since the University of North Carolina system announced the abrupt departure of Stacey Franklin Jones. In her stead stepped longtime Fayetteville State University administrator Thomas Conway, who on Jan. 1 became ECSU's fourth chancellor in less than three years.

Conway's chancellorship started as an unmistakable, if unstated, reset after Jones. A computer scientist who worked in both the public and private sectors, Jones championed science and technology-oriented education. She sought to specialize ECSU into a “premier interdisciplinary science university,” a move that didn't sit well with some alumni who worried ECSU was departing from its heritage and could become less attractive or accessible to local youth.

More significantly, Jones' also made some big missteps in management. Internal audits released after her resignation found she had made questionable hires, overused a university driver and wrongly benefited from a university meal contract. Another audit also found that, under Jones, ECSU's financial aid and admissions offices made major and potentially costly errors. The audit blamed the errors on lack of training, not Jones directly.

Management woes under Jones even led ECSU's regional accrediting body to warn ECSU it could lose its accreditation if it didn't shape up.

Sensitive to the unrest his sudden hiring caused – he acknowledged it was a “shock” to ECSU in his first interview with The Daily Advance – Conway introduced himself to faculty as a collaborator and “multiplier” of ECSU's good work. He also called for ECSU to balance arts and humanities with science and technology.

Conway has also worked to grow enrollment, an urgent and enduring problem for ECSU. His efforts have not succeeded yet.

Though Conway had projected ECSU to enroll about 1,500 students for fall 2016, the university enrolled fewer than 1,400. It was a loss of roughly 200 students from last year, and it drew an immediate response from UNC President Margaret Spellings. She named a working group of ECSU and UNC system officials, headed by Conway, to recommend immediate changes to the university to grow enrollment and cut costs. 

Under Conway, ECSU has sowed seeds it hopes will boost enrollment. ECSU is overhauling its computer network infrastructure to enable high-speed, wireless Internet access that students both want and need. The overhaul, made possible through special state funding, also provided new software to streamline admissions.

ECSU also pressed this year to recruit more traditional and nontraditional students, sending staffers to more high schools while expanding instructional agreements with community colleges.

Additionally, Conway has said appealing to military students is vital. In addition to more outreach to veterans, Conway also worked in 2016 to cement ECSU's relationship with the U.S. Coast Guard. In September, he signed an agreement committing the two organizations to support each other. 

ECSU will also try to attract more students by slashing its tuition costs in fall 2018.

That's not an idea Conway was wild about, however. State senators pushed the tuition buy-down, called “NC Promise,” during this year's budget talks. The program would slash undergraduate tuition at ECSU, Western Carolina University and UNC-Pembroke to $500 a semester, and the state would compensate them for the lost revenue.

Conway initially warned that NC Promise, effectively a new state subsidy for some schools but not others, would make ECSU seem like a “different category of institution” and call the value of its degrees into question. Lawmakers ultimately pushed through the program, however.

NC Promise has since earned ECSU trustees' support, and Conway has pledged to implement it. He reported in September that ECSU, UNC-Pembroke and WCU are collaborating on how to best administer and market the program.

Though ECSU has sown many seeds to boost enrollment, they may not bear fruit for a while. Showing caution after over-projecting this fall's enrollment, Conway said earlier this month ECSU only expects 1,400 students in fall 2017.

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