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Conway: ECSU's pace of progress drove retirement decision

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Elizabeth City State University Chancellor Thomas Conway, shown in this file photo from 2016, said he's retiring in May because the progress ECSU is making convinced him it was time to hand over the reins at the university to someone else.

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Elizabeth City State University Chancellor Thomas Conway said Wednesday that the pace of progress at ECSU has convinced him this is the right time for him to retire.

Conway announced Tuesday that he will be retiring at the end of May.

"One of the things that everyone who takes the job of chancellor wants to do is leave while the institution is in good shape and be able to turn it over in good shape to their successor," Conway said.

Conway said he felt ECSU had experienced success in dealing with many of the most difficult issues.

"I believe the institution is in a good place to launch for a really long, good run of growth," Conway said.

It's also a good time for a new leader to come in and take a long-term view as the university grows, he said.

Laughing, Conway said he has enough ego that part of him wants to be the one to be at the helm when ECSU experiences rapid growth over the next several years.

"I would like to say that I would be the one that rides that curve up." he said. "But I'm doing what I want everybody to do, which is look at the institution and not the individual.”

Asked if he had changed his mind during the past year about how long he would remain as chancellor, Conway acknowledged that his thinking had changed because he saw that opportunities evolved to accelerate some of the work that needed to be done.

Through the work of the Working Group 2, which is scheduled to be completed in June, a lot of the internal restructuring will have been done and operational issues will have been addressed. The Working Group, made up of both ECSU trustees and members of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, was formed by UNC President Margaret Spellings to help get ECSU ready for NC Promise, the tuition-reduction program expected to spur enrollment growth at ECSU and two other UNC campuses when it goes into effect this fall. 

"It's a great time to look at shifting to the next strategic planning window," Conway said.

The work of the Working Group sets the stage for a successor to come in and begin leading ECSU through a time of growth that probably will begin next fall, he said.

Spellings has already announced that Karrie Dixon, who currently serves as the vice president for academic and student affairs for the UNC System who and has worked with Conway in leading the Working Group 2, will become interim chancellor at ECSU beginning June 1.

Conway said his retirement is not related to health concerns.

"As far as I know I'm doing fine," Conway said, adding that he has reached an age where he always adds "as far as I know."

Conway said he and his wife plan to remain in Pasquotank County as citizens. When they came toi Elizabeth City one of the questions they had to answer was whether they could live here, and the answer was "yes," he said.

Immediately after retirement they will travel for a few months. "I owe myself and my wife that," he said.

He said the couple plan to remain active in the community.

Right now the university is poised to really go into a very positive growth cycle, becoming a major regional influence and part of the economic engine for the region — bringing jobs and a boost to the economy, Conway said.

Conversations about growth in Elizabeth City and the surrounding counties are becoming more robust, he said.

"This is going to be a destination area," Conway said.

To that end, though, investments are needed in infrastructure and health care, he said.

"The university is poised to grow with the surrounding area," he said.

Conway said he has a positive feeling about the closer relationship that has developed between ECSU and UNC General Administration and between ECSU and the N.C. General Assembly.

"It's a good one," Conway said of the relationship with UNC General Administration.

He said the willingness of General Administration and the General Assembly to make significant investments in ECSU is one reason he feels so good about prospects for growth at ECSU.

"One of the attitude changes that the institution had to go through is that Chapel Hill is almost three hours away and we're out in northeastern North Carolina and there's very little interaction," Conway said. "We now have much better communication with General Administration and with Jones Street in Raleigh than we have had in a long time and that has been very positive for the institution."

Not just ECSU but the whole region benefits from that relationship, he said.

Conway said he wants everyone to stay focused on growing the university.

In the past, he said, "outside involvement was not as welcome" at ECSU. But the university needs that outside support because it brings resources ECSU wouldn't have otherwise.

The other side of that is that ECSU needs to communicate with the legislature and General Administration about what its needs are.

Conway said he will be working full speed until his last day as chancellor, narrowing his focus somewhat to deal with the priorities of the working group and the need to enhance the student experience.

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