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Getting down to work: New ECSU-UNC working group meets

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University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings (center left) meets with Elizabeth City State University Chancellor Thomas Conway (right) and members of the new UNC-ECSU working group at the K.E. White Center, Wednesday. The working group is helping prepare ECSU for an expected enrollment surge.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The University of North Carolina system has formed a new working group to prepare Elizabeth City State University for an expected surge in enrollment, UNC President Margaret Spellings announced at ECSU on Wednesday.

Speaking at the group's first meeting, Spellings said it includes three members of the UNC Board of Governors and three members of the ECSU Board of Trustees. Board of Governors member Walter Davenport will chair the group, she said.

The working group’s other members include: Board of Governors Vice Chairman Harry Smith; Board of Governors member Steve Long; ECSU Board of Trustees Chairman Kim Brown; ECSU trustee board Vice Chairman Harold Barnes and ECSU trustee Jan King Robinson.

While it's unclear what changes the working group will make, they could be sweeping.

Davenport explained the group will review all of ECSU's operations to ensure it is capable of attracting and keeping a large student body.

The group also plans to make changes over eight to nine months, he said. That means it would complete its work before fall 2018, the semester when the new “NC Promise” plan takes effect. NC Promise will reduce ECSU's tuition to $500 a semester for in-state undergraduates and $2,500 a semester for out-of-state undergraduates. The intent of the program is to attract more students to the small campus.

“We have an aggressive timetable,” Davenport said. “In the months of November and December, we are going to be evaluating all the divisions and operations; we're going to complete a controlled audit to assist in operational evaluation and improvement.”

Davenport also said the group “will make immediate changes as necessary in financial aid, enrollment, and other areas” and then “develop recommendations for new organizational structure and operational practices.” The group also plans to develop a strategy for implementing NC Promise “to put enrollment growth in place,” he said.

The group will then work to implement its recommendations by June, he continued.

Davenport also noted that the new working group will build on successes of the first UNC-ECSU working group, crediting that group with growing enrollment and restructuring ECSU's debt to lower annual payments.

Spellings formed the first working group in fall 2016 after ECSU's enrollment missed a growth target and fell below 1,400 students. Though ECSU brought enrollment back up above 1,400 this semester — halting a seven-year trend of lost enrollment — Spellings said ECSU still has work to do.

“I like to say we're pleased but not satisfied,” Spellings said, referring to the enrollment turnaround.

Crediting Chancellor Thomas Conway with leading ECSU to growth, Spellings reiterated ECSU has “turned the corner,” but “we still have a journey ahead of us.”

Supporting the working group, Conway described it as helping achieve long-desired stability and growth.

“There's been a lot of consternation over the years about the fits and starts in terms of things that have been attempted at ECSU,” Conway said. “It's time to go for a permanent fix. It's time to move from fits and starts to sustainable change.”

Though both UNC and ECSU officials embraced the working group, Spellings acknowledged UNC hasn't formed those groups at other campuses. In a followup interview, she addressed concerns that ECSU continues to need unique oversight.

Spellings said the UNC system is “fully invested in the success of every single institution,” and it has offered additional resources and “sent additional capacity building” to other campuses over the years.

She also stressed the working group seeks to guarantee ECSU fully benefits from NC Promise, and part of doing that is ensuring ECSU is prepared for rapid growth.

Adding to that point, Brown commented, “When you get a boost in enrollment, like we did this year, it shows you where you need additional resources.” Suggesting ECSU's freshman class of 349 could nearly double next year, he said it “behooves us” to find out where ECSU might need help.

Asked if ECSU might need to ask for additional funding, such as for new personnel, Spellings and Conway said it's possible. They also noted that, if the working group recommends requesting additional resources, that will strengthen the case for those resources.

Spellings also said that, at ECSU and all campuses, she will be making a case for better, more competitive faculty pay.

Spellings also briefly discussed other issues at ECSU and other UNC campuses.

First, she discussed the Board of Governors' deliberations on how to restrict disruptive speech on university campuses. State lawmakers this summer passed legislation to require state universities to discipline students and employees who “substantially interfere” with others' free speech rights, including protests and demonstrations aimed to shut down a controversial speaker.

The Board of Governors is working now to create a policy following the law – leading to concerns that students and faculty could be harshly disciplined for minor infractions. In an article by the left-leaning NC Policy Watch, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer expressed concerns that even protesters who remain outside an event could be disciplined if anyone inside the event could still hear them.

Asked about that example, or someone being punished for a single outburst against a speaker, Spellings said she believes in a “level of discretion” for local institutions, and that common sense needs to exercised.

Spellings also addressed the renewed controversy over Confederate monuments, specifically the “Silent Sam” statue at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Spellings sparked controversy in August by joining UNC-Chancellor Carol Folt and Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette in writing to Gov. Roy Cooper to request more security ahead of potential confrontations over the statue. That led 15 Board of Governors members to object to the letter for one member described as exuding “weakness and hand-wringing.”

Though not mentioning that letter, Spellings said she supported the letter based on “what I was seeing on social media” in the wake of fatal protests in Charlottesville, Va.

Spellings declined to give her personal opinion on the monument. Asked, however, if there was a threshold of student opposition that would cause her to support the statue's removal, she said “we obviously continue to monitor it” and keep the statue secure. She also noted state law does not allow the university system to unilaterally remove the statue.

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