The cascade of trouble that hit Elizabeth City State University in the past few years was characterized Tuesday as “the perfect storm” by Stacey Franklin Jones, the university’s chancellor, who briefed a legislative committee on what was her fifth day on the job.
Jones, a mathematician and computer scientist, joined UNC system President Tom Ross in a presentation to a joint legislative committee that oversees education. Both said significant changes have “right-sized” ECSU and better positioned the university for the future.
The new chancellor promised greater prominence and self-sufficiency for the school, with a goal of data-driven planning. “That’s what you get when you hire a chancellor that’s a computational scientist by trade,” she added.
Jones suggested a process of rebranding ECSU as an affordable option for academic success and, within four years, a university with an emphasis on interdisciplinary science. Among the changes will be a better approach to recruiting students by reaching out to university supporters in other markets, she said. The school needs upgrades in technology infrastructure, she added.
The new chancellor also promised a collaborative approach with faculty to determine which programs will be promoted as signatures of ECSU. One has already been identified: the state’s only aviation program, which was recently reviewed by an outside team for accreditation.
“Everything we do from this day forward will be with the end goal of significant growth, regional impact and sustainability,” she said.
Jones was warmly welcomed by the committee months after an early version of the state Senate budget included language targeting ECSU for closure. That threat has apparently passed, but the budget called for a legislative study to evaluate strategies to address “any financial or enrollment concerns.” The study’s results are due before the legislature convenes early next year.
ECSU has seen a sharp drop in enrollment – about 44 percent in four years, to 1,867 students this fall. Along with that decline, the university’s budget dropped from $47.5 million to $37 million, Ross said, resulting in significant cuts. Academic programs were discontinued, administrative functions were streamlined, and 140 positions were eliminated.
“We’ve absorbed that,” Ross said, “and made a lot of tough decisions.”
The slide was driven by several factors, including the UNC system’s higher minimum admissions standards, the economic downturn and changes to a key federal loan program that tightened financial aid. The loan issue had an impact on universities across the nation, particularly historically black institutions that serve more low- and middle-income students.
That was a circumstance that was created by the federal government, Jones said. “So Elizabeth City State University really is at the eye of what could be considered to be the perfect storm, but not in a positive way,” she said. “But we’re turning that around.”
Questions from legislators
Lawmakers had a number of questions about what’s happening at ECSU.
Rep. Craig Horn, a Weddington Republican, asked whether ECSU was pursuing partnerships in the private sector. Ross said there were few industries of any size around ECSU, but the university is trying to strengthen ties with the Coast Guard and the College of The Albemarle, the area community college. Leaders are also in discussion with the Golden LEAF Foundation about support for aviation and the Duke Endowment about a possible rural health program.
Sen. Louis Pate, a Mount Olive Republican, asked why the university had only recently transitioned from a paper to electronic admissions system, “which I find a little bit disturbing in this modern day,” he added.
Others wondered what had happened to ECSU’s pharmacy program with UNC-Chapel Hill. Ross said the program had been suspended after challenges in recruiting students.
Rep. Marvin Lucas, a Spring Lake Democrat, said he agreed with raising admissions standards, even though it led to enrollment turmoil for North Carolina’s public historically black universities.
“Many of your well-placing minority students have options of attending majority schools, and they exercise those options, leaving the five traditionally HBCUs with an additional challenge to raise academic standards and increase enrollment,” he said. “The hurdle is even exacerbated for Elizabeth City, because they are in a rural setting. The other four are in urban settings.”
Jones said she hoped she was leaving the committee with some “warm fuzzies” and the knowledge that ECSU is moving forward.
Her boss said she is up to the task.
“She has a wonderful vision for where this place can go and what it can mean to northeastern North Carolina,” Ross said. “I think that most importantly, she understands the connection between the university and the economic future of that region.”