ECSU: From 8th grade ed to grad degrees


Glen Bowman


By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Sunday, November 19, 2017

First suggested almost 80 years ago, graduate degree programs were approved at Elizabeth City State University after a long journey, often sidetracked by racial issues and politics, but eventually achieved through the persistence of university leaders, an ECSU history professor explained last week.  

In his “The Politics of Graduate Education” lecture on Thursday, Glenn Bowman said the university has progressed to awarding graduate degrees from when it provided only the equivalent of an eighth-grade education. The lecture was part of the university’s observance of American Education Week.

ECSU awarded its first master’s degrees in December 2001. Today ECSU offers master’s degrees in elementary education, biology, mathematics and education administration.

“Graduate education is fairly new here, but the fight to get it is not,” Bowman said, referring to research he did for an updated history of ECSU published in 2015.

Bowman said education and politics go together “like peanut butter and jelly”, and he narrated a story that backed that up with regard to graduate education at ECSU.

In response to a question from a student, Bowman said it’s not easy to add graduate programs, but the university is always looking at possibilities for additional programs.

“Hopefully we can keep the four that we have,” he added.

It was on May 14, 1999, while Mickey Burnim was chancellor at ECSU, that the UNC Board of Governors approved the university’s first master’s degree programs, Bowman said.

When the institution that eventually became ECSU opened in 1891 — 110 years before the first graduate degrees were awarded — it was intended solely as a training school for teachers and offered the equivalent of today’s grades 5-8, Bowman explained. The idea was that teachers needed an eighth-grade education in order to be qualified to teach students in the primary grades.

It was nearly 15 years after its inception, in 1905, before the school graduated its first high school graduates. The institution did not offer college-level courses until 1921 and did not award its first bachelor’s degrees until 1939.

What became known as Elizabeth City State Teacher’s College and then Elizabeth City State College offered just one degree until the 1960s, and that was education, Bowman said.

Noting that it wasn’t until 2001 — “not that long ago” — that ECSU awarded its first graduate degrees, Bowman asked: “What took so long?”

Bowman asked students in the room what keeps students today from pursuing graduate degrees, and they mentioneed money, time, distance, motivation and grades.

“But none of you mentioned skin color,” Bowman said.

Yet during the first several decades of ECSU’s existence, skin color was the main barrier to graduate education, Bowman said.

In the first half of the 20th century ECSU faculty were not able to get their graduate degrees in North Carolina, so many of them went to schools in the northern states such as the University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsic, University of Iowa, Columbia University, New York University and Ohio State University, Bowman said.

In response to lawsuits by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other organizations, North Carolina in the late 1930s decided to look at offering graduate degrees at its black colleges. The first two HBCUs in the state to offer graduate degrees were what today are known as N.C. A&T State University and N.C. Central University.

In 1942, just three years after awarding its first bachelor’s degrees, ECSU saw its first push for graduate programs under the leadership of President Harold Leonard Trigg, Bowman said.

In 1969, the name of the school was changed from Elizabeth City State College to Elizabeth City State University. With than name change came a change in mission: ECSU could offer graduate programs if it were deemed necessary to the needs of the state, Bowman said. It was persuading the state that such programs at ECSU were necessary to the needs of the state that then became the issue, he said.

The UNC Board of Governors approved a graduate center at ECSU in 1980. Graduate courses were offered on the ECSU campus but the degrees were awarded through UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State University and East Carolina University.

“They were not our degree programs,” Bowman said, explaining that the degrees were awarded by those universities and not by ECSU.

The state enthusiastically celebrated the availability of graduate level education in Elizabeth City, with UNC President William Friday and N.C. Governor James B. Hunt Jr. both traveling to Elizabeth to announce the development.

Graduate courses initially were taught in Dixon Hall, Bowman said.

The K.E. White Graduate Education Center opened in Fall 1982, named after the first African-American to chair ECSU’s Board of Trustees. That gave graduation education a dedicated home on the campus.

ECSU President Marion Thorpe in 1971 noted local residents wished to have graduate education available in Elizabeth. Thorpe in the mid-1970s advocated a School of Optometry and School of Podiatry for ECSU, but they never materialized.

“Good ideas without the state’s support really meant nothing,” Bowman said.

In the early 1970s the federal government sued North Carolina under the 1964 Civil Rights Act for not effectively desegrating its universities, and as part of the settlement UNC agreed to invest more in ECSU and its other historically black colleges and universities, Bowman explained. Part of the investment was the development of the graduate center at ECSU.

The university under Chancellor Jimmy R. Jenkins and later under Burnim continued to push for graduate programs for ECSU until the state approved them in 1999, Bowman said.