Conway: Dialogue key for ECSU in 2018

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Elizabeth City State University Chancellor Thomas Conway updates area residents about the work of the new "Working Group Two" that's working to prepare ECSU for the NC Promise tuition program during a community forum at The Mount church, Tuesday.


By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Elizabeth City State University needs a constructive dialogue with the community, current students and alumni in order to successfully navigate the challenges of the coming year, ECSU officials said at a community forum Tuesday.

The forum, held at The Mount church, was intended to update the public about the current “working group” that is preparing ECSU for next fall’s implementation of the NC Promise tuition discount program, which will offer in-state students a tuition rate of $500 a semester.

Chancellor Thomas Conway said Working Group Two is focused on getting the university ready to handle the rapid growth that is expected when the NC Promise tuition discount program is implemented.

Another role for the current working group, Conway said, is enabling ECSU to become part of the economic development engine that propels a better life in northeastern North Carolina.

In addition to the working group there is also an “operational group” that will “look under the hood” at operations, Conway said.

The University of North Carolina Board of Governors has set five priorities across the UNC system: access; affordability and efficiency; student success; economic impact in the area; and excellent and diverse institutions.

One of the goals the UNC system has established specifically for ECSU is to recruit students from rural and low-wealth backgrounds and achieve high graduation rates among those students.

The university also is looking to achieve high degree-completion rates for transfer students and adult returning students, and to train people to work in jobs that are in critical demand.

Conway said he believes ECSU will do well on all those metrics.

Board of Trustees Chairman Kim Brown used a medical analogy to describe the university’s current outlook. This time last year, he said, ECSU was a patient on life support. The university is doing better now, he suggested, but it’s still on a respirator and in intensive care.

ECSU must work fast, Brown said, adding, “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The chancellor briefly celebrated ECSU’s enrollment increase this year. He pointed out that enrollment had increased for the first time in seven years and the freshman class this fall was the largest in five years.

“We have had a good year,” Conway said.

Conway said ECSU has started getting a lot of interest not only from within its rural, 21-county base area in northeastern North Carolina but also from the Triangle, Triad, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg areas of the state.

Conway also listed a number of achievements from last year’s working group. They included:

* garnering a $5.2 million special appropriation from the General Assembly;

* promoting implementation of problem-based learning in the curriculum;

* acceleration of accreditation of ECSU’s aviation science program;

* investment in a student success center; and

* initiation of $20 million in borrowing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA loan will apply $10 million toward debt refinancing and provide $10 million for building projects on campus.

The $20 million USDA loan, combined with $13 million in NC Connect bond funding, creates an economic impact in the area, Conway said.

“We have evidence that the institution benefited from Working Group One,” he said.

Johnnie Walton, an Elizabeth City city councilman who is an ECSU graduate, asked if the emphasis on careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) meant ECSU was getting away from its historic mission of educating people to become teachers. Focusing on teacher education worked in the past and will work now, said Walton, a retired teacher.

Conway said that while ECSU is developing programs such as aviation science, its School of Education remains a core focus and always will be.

One way the School of Education needs to expand its role is by better engaging local public school systems, Conway said. The university can’t claim excellence for its School of Education if it has failing public school systems in its backyard, he said.

“That sounds like a good vision,” Walton said.

Conway said he lifespan of the current working group is expected to last through June.

Conway also cited a recent study that rates North Carolina second in the nation in the economic impact of its historically black colleges and universities. The study shows the 2014 cohort of students at the state’s HBCUs having an economic impact of $1.7 billion in local communities while they’re in school and an additional $20.7 billion impact once they graduate.

“These institutions do make a difference,” Conway said.

Conway also said Elizabeth City has an opportunity to build a brand around the three colleges in town: ECSU, Mid-Atlantic Christian University and College of The Albemarle. There are things available in a “college town” that aren’t generally available elsewhere, he said.

Matthew Jarvis, president of the ECSU campus chapter of the NAACP and an outspoken critic of the recent direction of ECSU’s Office of Student Life, asked Conway what the university is doing to retain current students while it prepares for a large influx of students as NC Promise is implemented.

Conway said the university needs to hear from students about what they want.

“None of this works if retention doesn’t work,” Conway said.

Conway agreed that the university needs to have dialogue with students and incorporate that input into final decisions.

“This is a public institution,” Conway said. “I wasn’t elected king. I was elected chancellor.”

Brown said trustees want to continue holding community forums as a way to keep residents connected to what is going on at the university.

“The community is going to have to believe in this process,” he said.

Returning to his analogy of the hospital patient, Brown said he hopes this time next year to be able to say that the patient is being discharged.