Elizabeth City State University Chancellor Charles Becton expressed relief Friday evening that a provision requiring the university system to study ECSU’s closure had been eliminated from the Senate version of next year’s state budget.
“We are grateful that the proposed budget provision has been removed from the Senate budget bill,” Becton said in a press release following state Sen. Bill Cook’s announcement that he planned to submit an amendment removing the closure-study provision from the state budget.
The state Senate later voted 47-0 to approve Cook’s amendment, removing the provision that would have required the University of North Carolina to study closing any UNC institution where enrollment has dropped by 20 percent or more from 2010-14. Legislators confirmed the provision targeted ECSU.
Becton said he thanked Cook and his fellow senators Don Davis and Tom Apodaca, as well as Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger for helping remove the provision. He also thanked state Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, Mayor Joe Peel and other community leaders, many of whom had expressed concern about the provision after it first came to public light on Thursday.
Becton also said he was “most grateful for ECSU alumni, students, faculty, staff, trustees and community supporters” as well as the Legislative Black Caucus, all of whom had expressed opposition to the study.
Hours earlier on Friday, before the Senate action to eliminate the provision, Becton addressed a crowd at a town hall event on campus about what a closure study could have meant for both ECSU and the region.
ECSU is “too vital, too critical (and) too important to this state, this region and this community” to be shuttered, Becton told about 200 attendees at the event held at ECSU’s Fine Arts Center.
He said the university has an “economic impact of $118 million in output sales” annually and that it produces “the majority of K-12 teachers in northeastern North Carolina.” He called the university “a beacon of hope for those wanting access to education and enhanced opportunities for a better future.”
In response to an audience member’s question, Becton said the University of North Carolina’s General Administration fully supports ECSU.
“The (UNC) GA is fully supportive of ECSU,” Becton said, noting that GA representatives regularly visit campus, help with program initiatives and will in fact be present on campus next week.
“The GA was surprised to see this,” he said referring to the closure-study provision, adding that many senators and governor’s office personnel were similarly surprised by it being included in the state budget.
Becton later said “unaware” would be a more appropriate word than “surprised,” since this was not the first attempt to close ECSU.
He said similar measures were discussed last year, but UNC System President Tom Ross himself went to the General Assembly to defend ECSU and stop the effort.
Two years ago, as well as 10 years ago, discussions also took place about closing the university, Becton said.
“Nothing is new except the way they have couched it,” he said, referring to the provision included in the Senate version of the state budget.
Becton said he spoke with Ross Thursday night, and Ross assured him “they will do all they can” for ECSU.
Harold Barnes stressed the importance of ECSU as a regional university. Closing it “would be to destroy the lives of thousands of people, not just hundreds,” he said.
Elizabeth City Mayor Peel said he got on the phone with Cook 10 minutes after learning of the provision Thursday, to express his “deep concern.” Peel said Cook responded then that he was not sure he would be able to do anything to prevent the bill from passing the Senate.
Peel said he responded that if the Senate budget passed with the provision, it would affect the city and the region and signify the end of Cook’s career.
Cook said late Friday that he had asked for the amendment to remove the closure-study provision after talking with the Senate’s leadership.
“I am pleased that my fellow Senate members have chosen to stand with me in deleting this budget provision,” he said in a prepared statement. “The Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina does not need legislative prompting to study and correct declining enrollment.”
Cook also called ECSU a “significant center for learning in the Northeast for many years,” adding that he wants “to see it continue to provide higher learning opportunities for our students for many more years to come.”
Peel said City Council had called for a special meeting Monday night to pass a resolution supporting ECSU. It was not clear Friday evening if that meeting still would be held given the Senate’s elimination of the closure-study provision.
ECSU National Alumni Association President Jeanette Evans, who had said Thursday her group was seeking legal advice about legal action to stop the closure study, said talk of closing ECSU is “a continuing problem.” “Every few years this situation arises,” she said.
Answering a question about when the closure would take place, if it were to be signed into law, Becton said the study would be given to legislators during their long session next January or February at earliest or May or June at latest.
A woman who did not identify herself said that because ECSU is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, a “teach-out” of at least three years would be required, so “they aren’t talking about any immediate closures.”
Becton said that the teach-out window would be five years.
“They aren’t talking about any immediate closures. We’re not talking about closures at all,” he said, to applause.