DURHAM — Charlie Nelms, who for five years toughened academic standards and preached quality as chancellor of N.C. Central University, announced his retirement Thursday, effective Aug. 6.
The news, weeks before the start of a new semester, caught his senior staff off guard. He met with his executive team Thursday morning and told them that he had never had a break in his career and that now it was time. Then he sent an email to the campus community, invoking Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.”
“Five years ago, I took the road that led me to North Carolina Central University and experienced one of the most fulfilling periods of my extensive career in higher education,” the email said. “As I complete my five-year commitment to my beloved NCCU and prepare to celebrate my 66th birthday, I have made a decision that will carry me into the next phase of my life.”
Attempts to reach Nelms were unsuccessful, but his staff said he would be available for interviews next week. His email said he wanted to spend the rest of his career helping ensure the academic success of students at historically black colleges and universities. In 2010, he wrote a treatise calling for the reinvigoration of black colleges.
In a statement, UNC President Tom Ross said: “Chancellor Nelms has made extraordinary contributions to the academic quality and stature of N.C. Central University that will hold it in good stead as we search for his successor.”
Ross appointed Charles L. Becton of Durham – an attorney, law professor and former judge on the N.C. Court of Appeals – as interim chancellor.
NCCU’s Board of Trustees will form a search committee to find a permanent successor. A recommendation will be made to Ross and the UNC Board of Governors, which will elect a new chancellor.
Before coming to NCCU, Nelms was Indiana University’s vice president for institutional development and student affairs. He also had previously served as chancellor and professor of education at the University of Michigan-Flint and chancellor and professor of education at Indiana University East in Richmond.
Focus on service
Nelms, with his precise cadence and sharp-dressed style, was insistent that NCCU improve its service to students, from the phone manners of office workers to the landscaping that would make the campus more inviting. He mandated customer service training for faculty and staff. He helped students move into their dorm rooms each fall.
While he demanded more from the campus, he also wanted his students to step up. Under his leadership, the campus increased the required minimum grade point averages – returning students have to have a 2.0 grade point average to remain in school. Several hundred students left the campus in the past year as higher standards kicked in.
The average grade point average of incoming students climbed from 2.7 to 3.2, said Kevin Rome, NCCU’s vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management. Rome said Nelms thought it was unethical to allow students to accumulate debt if they weren’t progressing toward a degree.
“One of the things he talked about was excellence without excuses,” Rome said. “That was an excellent message that people bought into.”
Under Nelms, the university established the first doctoral degree program in more than 50 years – a Ph.D. in integrated biosciences, which will enroll the first students this fall.
Online courses increased by half, and the campus opened a new dorm and a nursing building. Nelms also oversaw NCCU as it moved from Division II to Division I in athletics.
He also had challenges. In 2010, an internal audit showed that a former employee embezzled state and federal grant money from a campus program.
An anonymous online petition also accused Nelms of charging personal expenses on a state-issued credit card. The issue was resolved after an internal audit found no serious problems, a UNC spokeswoman said.
Earlier this week, the university reinstated football coach Henry Frazier, who had been charged with assaulting his wife. NCCU officials said the legal charges had been resolved and Frazier was cleared to return to his job.
Rome said the job of chancellor can take a toll.
“Those types of things can wear away people who are trying to make a difference,” Rome said. “I’m sure there were people who didn’t like him being a strong leader.”
In his email, Nelms said now that NCCU’s new strategy for student success is in place, the next leader can start with a good foundation.
“I am certain that now is an excellent time to pass the baton to a new chancellor who can carry out the strategy,” he wrote.
But his departure now means that NCCU will be with an interim leader as a new academic year begins.
Founded in 1910, N.C. Central University was the first publicly supported liberal arts college for African-Americans. It has 8,300 enrolled in academic programs including law, biotechnology, library science, business, nursing, education and the arts.