Conway retires with thanks to those who helped him
By Reggie Ponder
Sunday, May 27, 2018
Working at two of the state’s historically black colleges has been a way, says Thomas Conway, of thanking those who helped him as a high school graduate contemplating what the future might bring.
On Thursday, Conway, chancellor or Elizabeth City State University, will finish his 42-year career with the University of North Carolina System. While he plans to work right to the end of that day in his current consultative capacity, he already has passed the baton operationally to interim Chancellor Karrie Dixon.
He joked that he wasn’t sure exactly what retired people do but that he and his wife, Mychelle, are about to find out. The Conways plan to remain in the Elizabeth City area and take on a role as active volunteers after spending a few months traveling.
ECSU made significant progress during Conway’s short tenure -- posting its first enrollment increase in seven years, coming off of warning status with the regional accrediting agency and securing additional support and funding from the N.C. General Assembly.
Conway spent 32 years at N.C. State University and another 10 with the University of North Carolina System, serving as vice chancellor at Fayetteville State University before taking the helm at ECSU in January 2016. In March 2017, he was installed as the 11th Chief Executive Officer, and sixth Chancellor of ECSU. He was a high school guidance counselor for three years before beginning his work at NCSU, giving him a total of 45 years of service to the state.
He said he was proud of programs he helped build at NCSU, including first year college, honors program, undergraduate research program and academic support for student-athletes.
But when he left NCSU to go to Fayetteville State it was a “personal decision” motivated by gratitude for what another HBCU -- N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro -- had done for him and the community support he had received as a young man.
“I wanted to end my career working at HBCUs, to do something putting back into the communities that helped me grow when I was at that stage when I was starting out,” Conway said.
Conway holds a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education and master’s degree in guidance and counseling from N.C. A & T State, and a Ph.D. in counselor education from N.C. State.
He said he was also excited to go to Fayetteville State because of the chance to work with Chancellor James Anderson, with whom he had worked at N.C. State. And he was thrilled to come to ECSU because he knew there were tremendous opportunities here.
“I believed, and I still believe, in what this institution is capable of,” Conway said. He said he also was motivated by a conviction that Elizabeth City and northeastern North Carolina “deserve a well-run institution.”
He also knew he was coming to a university that faced serious challenges, and he brought with him a clear philosophy about how to approach those struggles.
“You have to find a balance between what you must do at home and what you can learn from people at a distance,” Conway said. “The real solutions to ECSU’s challenges, and those of the Elizabeth City community and the region, really have to be organic. They have to be home-grown.”
Wisdom to guide the future of the region can be found in its history, he said.
“The region was really built on entrepreneurship,” Conway said. “It was built on that sense of accountability and responsibility for one’s own community.”
Conway said he is excited about efforts being initiated from many quarters to bring the Elizabeth City community together.
“I’ve been in conversation with a lot of other people in the community and there is a growing excitement for concentrated efforts to bring community constituencies together,” Conway said.
The community is beginning to come together around critical concerns such as fostering economic growth, elevating the investment in and quality of public school systems, and involvement and partnering by the three institutions of higher education in Elizabeth City, Conway said.
Conway said he, College of The Albemarle President Robert Wynegar and Mid-Atlantic Christian University President John Maurice have discussed ways to collaborate among those institutions. He noted that interim Chancellor Karrie Dixon is now taking on that role in those meetings.
And despite the challenges facing ECSU, Conway said he found resources here for building a good way forward.
“The university is still in growth mode,” Conway said.
The critical problems that threatened the university emerged over about a decade, Conway said, and it also will take some time to completely remedy some of those problems. But the work is underway and things are headed in the right direction, he said.
There are challenges that still lie ahead for the university, he said, including being a part of the community and continuing to grow academic programs.
At the same time, ECSU has interesting opportunities now for collaboration in areas such as pharmacy, agriculture and engineering, Conway said. Graduates of the pharmaceutical sciences program are getting good jobs as pharmacy technicians and laboratory technicians with pharmaceutical companies, and some are continuing their studies at other schools and becoming pharmacists, he said.
And building on the strength of ECSU’s faculty in biology and other sciences, the university is exploring teaching and research opportunities in agriculture, he said. The university was recently designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a non-land-grant agricultural institution, which means it’s now eligible for federal funding for agriculture programs, he said.
The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture website describes Certified Non-Land-Grant Colleges of Agriculture as “partners who collaborate with NIFA to address critical issues related to agriculture, food, the environment, and communities.”
Conway said the designation allows ECSU to compete for federal funding for agriculture programs. “So we’re looking for opportunities in those areas,” he said.
Word is out that ECSU has an excellent program in biology, Conway said, pointing out that biology is now the most popular major at the university.
Although Conway started his service at ECSU with an ambitious agenda of what he hoped to accomplish, he said he soon realized that it was going to take substantial effort to be ready to start growing again -- to “get to zero.”
“I think one of the things that I’m proudest of is that we have come a really long way in terms of doing that,” Conway said. The university has accomplished important tasks in terms of being ready to grow and rebuilding trust, he said.
Conway said he has come to appreciate the term used on house-flipping TV shows when people talk about a house having “good bones,” and he found it relevant to ECSU’s situation.
“This university has good bones,” Conway said. Those strengths include the faculty, a commitment to students, and a good staff, he said.
In addition, students who choose to come to the university exemplify its core values of accountability, appreciation for diversity, investment in excellence, and holistic learning.
The greatest strength of all might be alumni, he said.
“ECSU has some of the most amazing alumni that any institution could have,” Conway said. They carry with them a commitment to excellence in their careers and in service to their communities, and it’s that commitment to excellence that is the key to ECSU’s future, he said.
“If I sound like I care it’s because I do,” Conway said.