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Our View: Becton has opportunity to set ECSU on stronger course

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Former state appellate court Judge Charles Becton, who is now interim chancellor of Elizabeth City State University, occupies a unique position at the university. Currently, he’s battling a raging controversy tied to campus police and security. Yet, he has an opportunity, not only to repair that damage, but to set a new and stronger course for ECSU.

Becton is no neophyte. He comes in familiar with the challenges facing higher eduction and other institutions. Most recently, he successfully completed a UNC-appointed 10-month term as interim chancellor of N.C. Central University in Durham — an experience that should prove timely for this latest appointment.

Additionally, his academic and professional credentials — Howard University grad, law degrees from Duke University and the University of Virginia — aren’t too shabby either. He went on to practice law with a Chapel Hill firm before being appointed to the N.C. Court of Appeals in 1981, serving on the bench until 1990 before returning to private practice.

Accordingly, while ECSU’s horizon is clouded by many challenges, Becton offers a unique opportunity to bring about — or set the stage for — meaningful, long-term changes that will leave the university a better place when a new chancellor steps in.

Becton was called up to head ECSU in May by UNC system president Tom Ross. That call came following the resignation of Dr. Willie Gilchrist, former chancellor, amid revelations that 127 reported campus crimes had been left unresolved since 2004. Gilchrist’s exit, effective June 30, followed the resignation of long-time campus police chief Sam Beamon on May 10. Becton’s term began July 1 and will end next June. He said he has no interest in the full-time job at ECSU.

He’s currently focused on quelling the furor over campus crime, charges of a campus employee assaulting a student in a dorm and allegations of obstruction of justice and witness tampering. The SBI has been investigating, working with Elizabeth City police to prosecute or clear the caseload of crimes. In the meantime, an interim campus police chief, John Manley, has been hired to reconstitute campus security.

Becton has been forthcoming about the seriousness of campus crime and the consequences — enrollment being the key one — ECSU faces. He’s made ensuring a safe educational environment a priority.

While Becton has been focused on that, he’s also preparing for the anticipated cut in university funding from the state.

Republican leaders in the General Assembly are negotiating a budget that could leave the university system anywhere from $48 million to $125 million short of projected expense. For ECSU, the impact could be huge, since the university relies on state dollars for 60 percent of its funding.

Becton acknowledged recently that the potential cuts, which he termed “draconian,” would affect ECSU programs and course offerings. Nevertheless, he pledged that the university would work through whatever financial issues arise due to funding reductions, and that ECSU will adjust and continue to fulfill its mission.

Becton also has been forward-thinking about university fundraising, strengthening ties to alumni and restoring the university’s image — an objective that many staff and administrators recently cited as a priority in response to the campus crime debacle. Becton has stated his commitment to playing a public role in the Albemarle and to forging closer ties to local colleges, civic groups and other institutions.

Challenges at ECSU will also put Becton on the uncomfortable trail of examining ECSU’s internal culture. While the police and SBI investigation are still in progress, it would be premature to speculate on responsibility for the campus security breakdown. However, the buck always stops with administration, and it will be necessary to determine what part that played in the failed campus police policy.

Additionally, getting those answers may reveal other areas in need of attention. By identifying poor administrative policy now and correcting it for the long term, Becton can help set ECSU on a better course.

Becton faces a full agenda at ECSU, but he brings formidable skills and experience to that challenge. A supportive community on campus and in the Albemarle should make his work even more effective.