ELIZABETH CITY — After a slide in enrollment, a $5 million budget cut and dozens of layoffs, Elizabeth City State University may downsize its academic portfolio, too.
University leaders are considering the elimination of seven degree programs, including such basics as physics, history and political science. Even the suggestion of dumping history as a major has prompted a letter-writing campaign from historians across the state, including scholars from Duke University.
The proposal also has fueled speculation that bigger changes are in store at the historically black university in northeastern North Carolina. The UNC system’s Board of Governors will review campus missions in the coming months. Earlier this year, some legislators floated the idea of closing or consolidating some of the 17 UNC campuses, without targeting any specific universities.
In a recent statement, ECSU provost and vice chancellor Ali Khan said dropping some degree programs would not mean the university wouldn’t offer courses in those areas, which he identified as studio art, geology, physics, marine environmental science, industrial technology, history and political science. He said the cut is “still very much in the discussion stage.”
On Wednesday, Interim Chancellor Charles Becton said it is too early to comment in any depth on what the university would eliminate. “We are exploring everything,” he said.
Historians across North Carolina are raising alarms about dropping a history degree at ECSU.
“This is eliminating a kind of building block of the liberal arts,” said Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, a UNC-Chapel Hill historian. “I don’t know if there’s another major college or university in the country that does that. I mean, it’s a pretty serious thing.”
Hall and William Chafe, a retired Duke University historian – both past presidents of the Organization of American Historians – recently wrote to leaders at ECSU and the UNC system to protest the proposal, saying it would have “dire educational and economic consequences for future generations of our state.”
UNC President Tom Ross said ECSU would make the decisions about which degrees to eliminate.
“The larger question is we do think that the institution needs to be focused on its curriculum ... in an area that is likely to draw student enrollment, because that’s going to be important for the institution. That’s really all we know at this point.”
ECSU’s enrollment has dropped from 3,300 students in 2010 to about 2,400 this fall. Last month, the bond rating agency Moody’s Investors Service changed the campus’ outlook from stable to negative, citing in part its “precipitous decline in enrollment.”
Forty-six employees were laid off this fall to cope with a $5 million shortfall.
Abdul Rasheed, chairman of ECSU’s Board of Trustees, said the university is “right sizing” like other campuses across the nation. Some UNC campuses have seen enrollment declines in the aftermath of the recession and as tougher minimum admissions standards were adopted by the system.
Rasheed said the degree programs being considered for elimination have low numbers of students.
“I don’t at this point see it tied to any determined, strategic sort of restructuring of the university,” he said.
“We all are focusing and trying to align ourselves and think about what are the major assets of the university in terms of our program offerings,” Rasheed said. “What does the future suggest that we would best be able to build upon?”
For example, he said, the university has an aviation program that is unique and positioned to attract students.
Hall, the UNC-CH historian, speculated that doing away with foundational liberal arts programs “is a way of pushing Elizabeth City more and more into a very narrow vocational niche.”
Rasheed said he is well aware that ECSU is often mentioned as a target by those who want to shrink the UNC system. But it’s key to a region in need of education and jobs, he said.
“If you take Elizabeth City State University out of Elizabeth City, you are driving that economy to a very desperate place,” he said. “Elizabeth City State University is a very important, critical part of the economic future of that area, and it’s one industry that we can grow.”
Other problems on campus
The talk of reducing academic programs comes at a time when the small campus is reeling from other problems, including a scandal in its police department and the revelation that the university spent more than $100,000 in phone calls to Senegal.
The previous chancellor, Willie Gilchrist, abruptly retired in June amid a State Bureau of Investigation probe into the police department on campus. The city police force stepped in to review 125 criminal cases that had not been properly investigated. Several campus officers resigned.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said the SBI forwarded a report last month to the Pasquotank County district attorney, who did not return a phone call Wednesday.
A report from a consulting firm in October said the university was “substantially out of compliance” with the federal Clery Act, which requires campuses to report crime statistics.
“ECSU lacks the systems, processes, and appropriately trained staff to ensure compliance with the Act,” said the report from Margolis Healy & Associates. “Further, and in our professional opinion, ECSU has failed to develop and embrace a culture of compliance with regards to the Clery Act.”
The university has a new police chief and policies, and it has begun to turn the situation around, Rasheed said.
“Clearly like all of the universities, you have issues. You have to fix them and move on. We can’t become entrapped, if you will, by any of these issues, and certainly it’s not anything that any of us feel good or proud about.”
Keeping the state’s five public historically black universities strong is important, he said.
“When we start talking about tampering with these HBCUs, we’re talking about cutting off tremendous access to people who only need the support of those environments to reach their potential. I’m one,” said Rasheed, CEO of the N.C. Community Development Initiative. “Trust me. ... I owe my everything to that little university, I really do.”