Next UNC chair sees ECSU moving forward
By Reggie Ponder
Sunday, June 17, 2018
Strong leadership from its own trustees and solid support from University of North Carolina System officials should keep Elizabeth City State University on an upward curve, the chairman-elect of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors said last week.
Harry Smith, a Greenville businessman who starts a term as chairman of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors on July 1, said he is honored to be given the opportunity to work on behalf of the UNC System’s 17 institutions.
“I just want to do some really good work for what I think is the state’s number one asset,” Smith said.
Smith, who previously as a new member of the UNC Board, had supported a study on whether Elizabeth City State University should be closed, said he was wrong about that position. He said he will work for all schools, advocating for them and helping them develop strategies to be successful.
“I enjoy working with this group of people,” Smith said of his fellow board of governors members and the UNC System staff.
This is a time when there is a lot of pressure on higher education, so the board of governors needs to work closely with each of the 17 UNC institutions on strategies that fit their unique needs “and are positioning them for long-term, sustainable success,” Smith said.
Smith said he is pleased with ECSU’s renewed growth in enrollment and believes ECSU will get to a sustainable enrollment -- 3,000 or 3,500 students -- in a few years.
ECSU has a target enrollment of 1,700 students for 2018-2019 and is on pace to meet that goal. The current trend represents a reversal of the downward spiral of just a few years ago but leaves significant room for continued growth.
Smith said the UNC System is committed to working with ECSU to ensure that growth continues. He said that over the years the school has not had a lot of advocacy at the board of governors -- and insisted that has now changed.
“So really it has been over a 20-year span that it was allowed to decline,” Smith said. “It did not happen overnight.”
Facilities and landscaping need to be addressed along with other needs at the university, he said.
“The physical plant and everything about it shows that we weren’t investing in it,” Smith said.
One of the most encouraging trends at ECSU right now is the leadership of the trustees, he said.
“ECSU has committed and engaged trustees who are in it to win it,” Smith said. “They are showing up at board of governors meetings and they are advocating for their institution. You’ve got some incredible trustees up there right now.”
Smith said he and the rest of the board of governors understand that ECSU is critical to northeastern North Carolina.
In rural NC, both east and west, “one of the best things we offer to people are our state-run colleges, which provide an opportunity to students for glass-ceiling breaks,” Smith said.
The degree programs needed at each school will reflect the jobs that are available in that local area, he said. The board of governors will work with the trustees to stay on top of the data and make sure the school has the right degree programs in place, he said.
That approach will be applied at each of the 17 institutions as the UNC System pursues “17 distinct strategies,” Smith said. There will be no more “one size fits all” because “that has not worked.”
If enrollment drops or fewer students are applying for admission, “we need to figure out what happened and what we should be doing,” Smith said.
In terms of the turnaround that is well underway at ECSU, Smith said, “I think it’s just all-around focus. You have highly engaged trustees, the board of governors is engaged, the system office and president are engaged. It’s a close-knit and working group across the spectrum, with the board of governors being able to work with the trustees and keep emotions out of it and get things accomplished. The board of trustees has worked alongside us as a team.”
Steve Long, immediate past president of the board of governors, is due a lot of credit for the time and attention he has focused on ECSU, Smith said.
Smith emphasized that the board of governors will work closely with the local trustees.
“From my perspective, the trustees are your front doorstep,” Smith said.
The board of governors has to collaborate with the trustees because the trustees understand the local situation, he said. If you don’t rely on the trustees understanding of the school’s strengths and needs, it’s difficult to do the things that are necessary to get the school on a successful path, he said.
The search process for the chancellor of a UNC System institution is established by state law, Smith noted. A search committee is formed, made up largely of trustees from the institution, and the committee submits three names to the president.
“The board of trustees are going to lead the way and we are going to respect that,” Smith said of the trustees’ role in the search for ECSU’s next chancellor. “The board of governors respects that and the president respects that. If someone recommended by the trustees was not appointed, that would mean you thought they had gotten it wrong, that they had just blown it, and I don’t think you’re going to see that be the case. You’ve got a super group of people down there and they’re more than capable of doing this right.”
Smith said he made a mistake a few years ago when he publicly called for the state to study closing ECSU.
“I was wrong,” Smith said. “I made a mistake. It was early in my time on the board of governors and I didn’t take the time I should have taken to understand the value of all our schools. I was wrong to take that position.”
And moving forward he’s 100 percent bullish on ECSU’s future.
“I’m going to continue to work hard to correct my mistake there,” he said. “One of the keys to effective leadership is the ability to say ‘I was wrong and I made a mistake there.’ I continue to learn something new every day about the UNC System and higher education.
“One of the things I have learned is that each of our institutions plays an important role in the overall system and in the economy of its region, and Elizabeth City more than fits that bill. I’m committed to all of our schools, to making sure that they have what they need to be successful.”