The chancellor who helped reverse a downward slide in enrollment at Elizabeth City State University has died.
ECSU announced former Chancellor Thomas E.F. Conway Jr.’s death on its website Saturday.
Conway, ECSU’s 11th chief executive and sixth chancellor, headed the Elizabeth City-based university for two years following his appointment by former University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings in January 2016. He retired in 2018.
The chancellor who succeeded Conway, Dr. Karrie Dixon, said the entire Viking community mourns his passing and extends its condolences to Conway’s wife, Mychelle, and their family.
“This is a sad day, and with a heavy heart we mourn the passing of a gentleman who I have known for over 20 years from my days as an undergraduate student. He was one of my mentors and a friend,” she said.
Conway brought both steadiness and stability to ECSU during his two years as chancellor. Prior to Conway’s arrival from Fayetteville State University where he had served as a vice chancellor and chief of staff to the chancellor, ECSU had had two chancellors and one interim chancellor in three years.
The university grew during his tenure, recording its first enrollment increase in seven years. The university also received approval from the University of North Carolina Board of Governors to add five new academic programs. Conway also established agreements with community colleges in the region, including College of The Albemarle, that allow community college students to take courses at ECSU while still enrolled at their college.
ECSU Board of Trustees Chairwoman Jan King Robinson said Conway’s leadership was vital to setting the university on a new trajectory of growth.
“He certainly was the person to bring at that time of transition,” Robinson said.
She said Conway reached out into the community, built bridges, and identified how to make the best use of resources to help the university grow.
He also was known for his likability. “He had a great sense of humor,” Robinson said.
Conway knew people in the University of North Carolina System office and worked well with people in the system, she said.
Robinson noted Conway had a great relationship with Dixon, who was a vice president of the UNC System when Conway was chancellor and worked closely with him on plans to reinvigorate the campus.
Conway also generated a lot of excitement in the community about ECSU, she said.
“He helped the community see that the university was ready to turn a corner,” Robinson said.
Conway and his wife Mychelle remained in Elizabeth City after his retirement. Robinson said that decision reflected Conway’s commitment to ECSU.
“I think a testament to his commitment to the university — both his and his wife’s commitment — is that after he retired they decided to remain here in the community,” he said. “That’s the kind of commitment he made not only to the university but to the community. He fell in love with the community and I think the community fell in love with him.”
Trustee Harold Barnes recalled Monday that his introduction to Conway didn’t go so well.
“It seems like yesterday when he called me and said he was coming to ECSU as our next interim chancellor,” Barnes said. “I was still upset over the circumstances under which the previous chancellor had left and I did not take kindly to his phone call.”
Barnes said that had nothing to do with Conway — he just happened to be the person on the other end of the phone line.
But when Conway got to Elizabeth City he reached out to Barnes again and won the trustee’s confidence and support.
“I found him to be a man of integrity and he had a great deal of experience in higher education,” Barnes said. “He was committed to moving ECSU forward. He brought integrity to the school at a time when there was not much public confidence.”
Barnes said he and Conway grew to have great respect for each other and worked well together.
“We worked well together once we got to know one another,” Barnes said. “I’m just glad to know him, and he did a great job for ECSU.”
According to ECSU, Conway oversaw investments in the university totaling more than $24 million. And along with Spellings, he co-chaired the first Working Group, a panel designed to focus on the university’s strengths and secure its future. He co-chaired a second Working Group along with Dixon prior to his retirement.
A strong believer in the idea that ECSU should play a leading role in economic development of the region, Conway oversaw the launching of InnovatEC, a university project designed to spur economic growth and entrepreneurship.
Conway also believed ECSU should have stronger ties with its surrounding community. To encourage that, he launched a series of university-led town halls. The sessions allowed community residents to express what they wanted from the university and gave ECSU a chance to inform residents of the programs and services available on campus.
The university also launched a new university brand during Conway’s tenure in 2017-18, introducing both a new logo and tagline. Conway said of the tagline, “Come to Discover, Leave to Conquer,” that it well described ECSU’s long tradition of graduating “well prepared and accomplished young men and women.”
When he retired in 2018, Conway had worked for the UNC system for 45 years, 32 of them at N.C. State University where he held a number of posts, including vice provost for enrollment management and services, and associate vice provost for the division of undergraduate affairs.
Conway earned his bachelor of science degree in agricultural education. He held a master’s of science degree in guidance and counseling from North Carolina A&T University, and a Ph.D. in counselor education from NCSU.
No funeral arrangements for Conway had been announced as of Monday.