Conway helped ensure ECSU's turnaround continues


Sunday, January 28, 2018

When Chancellor Thomas Conway announced out of the blue recently that he plans to retire at the end of May after only two years at the helm of Elizabeth City State University, we, like probably many others, immediately assumed the worst.

And why wouldn’t we? Despite the improving trends under Conway’s leadership, the chancellor’s office at ECSU unfortunately has become a revolving door in recent years. The historically black university has only had 12 chief executives in its long 127-year history, but four of them have held the office in the past five years, and three of the last six have left the campus not of their own volition but at the behest of the University of North Carolina System president.

Plus, the campus has weathered a number of highly publicized crises in recent years: a more-than-50-percent drop in enrollment — from a high of 3,100 in 2010 to 1,357 in fall 2016; the loss of millions of dollars in state funding that forced the layoffs of more than 100 employees; a year-long placement on “warning status” by its accrediting agency for failing to follow standard practices in personnel hiring, student admissions and use of federal research funds.

While many of these problems predated Conway’s arrival at ECSU, he was the person tapped by then UNC President Tom Ross to fix them — or ensure they stayed fixed — following the sudden forced exit of Chancellor Stacey Franklin Jones in December 2015. It was a daunting challenge for even someone like Conway, who, at the time, had already spent more than 40 years working for the UNC system.

Turns out, though, that our fears of yet another chancellor departing under questionable circumstances, leaving ECSU to pick up the pieces and start over again, were completely unwarranted.

Conway is leaving ECSU for the same reason most folks his age leave their careers: because he’s worked hard a long time and is ready to enjoy retirement. Conway is also leaving now because he feels the job he was hired to do at ECSU — stabilize its enrollment, restore its credibility with appropriators and accreditors, and set it on a path for future growth — is largely completed. In fact, the pace of improvement at ECSU has been so significant that Conway believes the time for him to go couldn’t be better. In an interview last week, he explained his decision this way: "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. I believe the institution is in a good place to launch for a really long, good run of growth.”

A lot of the credit for ECSU being in “good shape” and in such a “good place to launch” for future success is directly attributable to Conway’s efforts. In the short span of two years, ECSU not only has reversed a seven-year enrollment slide, it’s looking to significantly boost enrollment this fall, thanks largely to the start of the new NC Promise tuition-discount program, to as many as 1,700 students. The university also has resolved the problems that concerned the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, resulting in ECSU’s removal from SACS’ warning list. UNC President Margaret Spellings has praised Conway’s leadership on both developments.

One other key development during Conway’s tenure has been the growth of a closer relationship between ECSU and UNC General Administration. This relationship arguably would have gotten closer anyway given the university’s former enrollment woes and the circumstances of Jones’ departure. But Conway’s ties to the UNC system certainly made ECSU’s acceptance of UNC’s greater role on the campus easier. By Conway’s own admission, “outside involvement was not always welcome” at ECSU. The fact this involvement is now normalized — a group of ECSU trustees and members of the UNC Board of Governors is actively planning how ECSU can best benefit from NC Promise this fall — has already benefited ECSU by providing it with additional expertise and resources. It will only be to ECSU’s benefit if this close relationship continues.

To her credit, Spellings has already telegraphed that it will. She’s announced that Dr. Karrie Dixon, vice president for academic and student affairs for the UNC System and co-leader of the group preparing ECSU for NC Promise, will take over as interim chancellor at ECSU after Conway retires. Dixon said in an interview last week she’s looking to build on the momentum Conway’s started. She also said she’s advised UNC and ECSU leaders she’s interested in the permanent chancellor’s job, telling them that, when it comes to pursuing excellence at ECSU, she’s “all in 100 percent.”

We’d urge the ECSU community — trustees, staff, students and alumni — to get behind Dixon and give her a chance to continue what Conway’s started. Someone with a UNC System background as chancellor could only be a good thing. After all, look what ECSU got with Conway.