Another transition ahead for Elizabeth City State University

Elizabeth City State University’s future is unclear after the resignation of its leader only 14 months into the job.

The sudden and unexplained resignation of Chancellor Stacey Franklin Jones on Monday was coupled with the news that East Carolina University will step in to give guidance to the struggling institution, which has been losing students and money for the past several years.

That collaboration could portend a new way forward for Elizabeth City State, a historically black institution nestled in economically challenged northeastern North Carolina. So far, the partnership with ECU has not been clearly defined. A news release from the UNC system said ECU will help “build greater capacity throughout ECSU’s student support and operational units.”

Elizabeth City State will have its own leader, though. Thomas Conway, vice chancellor and chief of staff at Fayetteville State, was named interim chancellor and is expected to be elected for the job permanently in January by the UNC Board of Governors. Conway, who had 32 years of experience in various roles at N.C. State, was a contender for the ECSU job last year, officials said.

Jones’ departure is a mystery. She did not respond to phone calls or email Tuesday. Faculty said the campus was informed by a generic announcement, with little explanation. Even campus trustees said they weren’t sure how the final decision was made.

Paul Norman of Raleigh, chairman of ECSU’s trustees, said he got word that a change was coming. “I’m not sure if she was forced out or not,” he said of Jones.

He said the board had lately had effective communication with Jones. “We were pushing her to lead us,” he said.

Some students appeared unhappy with the change. ECSU’s student government organization tweeted that it wants answers about Jones’ departure and Conway’s arrival from the Board of Governors and UNC President Tom Ross.

“We are disappointed in the exclusion of student representation and participation and we are demanding answers on this issue,” the student group tweeted.

The important thing now, Norman said, is to support Conway.

UNC board members said an internal audit was underway at the campus, but had not concluded. “We will follow the leader to take us to a situation where everyone is happy, everyone is more excited about the brand, what we have to offer,” Norman said. “From this point it’s about moving forward, it’s about leaping to new opportunities. It’s about embracing the opportunities that are in front of us.”

A state audit issued last week had no findings of wrongdoing or mismanagement. The university had a 7 percent decrease in state appropriations in 2014-15 because of declining enrollment, and cut its budget by $4.5 million in a “rightsizing” plan.

“Despite the budget reductions and decline in student enrollment, the University’s financial position at June 30, 2015, remained strong with total current assets of $16.3 million which is sufficient to cover current liabilities of $4.5 million by 3.57 times,” the state audit said. “This scenario indicates the University’s ability to pay current liabilities as they become due.”

ECSU has seen a precipitous decline in enrollment since the recession, from 3,307 in 2010 to 1,867 in 2014. Norman said this fall’s enrollment was about 1,600.

The drop was primarily attributed to an increase in minimum admissions standards across the UNC system. That policy, meant to boost graduation rates, has led to a slide in enrollment at several public university campuses.

Some legislators and others have suggested that Elizabeth City State should close or merge with another UNC campus.

Harry Smith, a member of the Board of Governors, was one of them.

“My first stance on Elizabeth City was to close it, and I would tell you that was an ill-educated position. ... I can tell you that I was wrong about that,” Smith said.

But, he said, Eastern North Carolina is losing its young people to urban areas. The area has an aging population without a lot of job creation.

“We have to keep Elizabeth City going,” Smith said. “Universities are economic engines. They can make things move. Elizabeth City is in one of the most depressed areas of the state. We’ve got to do a different model down there, in my opinion.”

He said there are other approaches, which could include rebranding and raising the cap on out-of-state tuition to recruit Virginia residents to ECSU. “I would also contend that we need to change the demographics somewhat on the colleges and recruit more white and Hispanic kids into Elizabeth City State,” Smith added.

But, he said, the university is an important prong in the UNC system.

Norman, the trustee chairman, said he has some questions about what role ECU will take at Elizabeth City State. “I don’t know what it means for their involvement, so I don’t want to be critical of that,” he said. “It can be a good thing. At least I’m hoping it’s a good thing.”

The campus needs good programs to attract students, he said, and good programs cost money.

“It would be a tragedy if we didn’t survive,” Norman said. “Elizabeth City has been founded since 1891. We have had struggles over the years from time to time, but we always came out on top.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill