At a crossroads, ECU must choose its next path

Supporters of East Carolina University often say that if the university did not exist, the state would have to build it. That’s because the university in Greenville is a crucial source of teachers, doctors, dentists and others who serve rural Eastern North Carolina and counties across the state.

But these days that assertion comes with a twist. Since North Carolina needs East Carolina University, it will have to reinvigorate it.

During the stormy three-year tenure of ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton there were a series of disputes over the chancellor’s $1.3 million home, the expansion of the football stadium, the leadership of athletics, state funding and student housing. Through it all, Staton talked about building ECU into a “national university,” even as enrollment and revenue slipped.

Under pressure from the UNC system’s leadership, Staton announced in March that he will step down after the university’s May 3 commencement. The former head of Golden LEAF Foundation, Dan Gerlach, has been named as the interim chancellor.

After a rocky few years, troubling numbers are beginning to emerge. Enrollment at the school of 23,000 undergraduates and 5,600 graduates has slipped, including a recent drop of more than 400 students, costing the school millions of dollars. ECU’s acceptance rate is near 80 percent, making one of the least competitive schools in the UNC system. Its annual budget has gone from surpluses to deficits even as ambitious building plans have increased costs. ECU’s proud football tradition hasn’t offered relief in terms of finances or morale. The Pirates have have had four losing season in a row.

Gerlach says the setbacks are only temporary and ECU’s broad academic offerings in will continue to drive growth in the long term.

“ECU has long been one of the fastest growing universities in the UNC System. We are confident that as we show the excellent opportunities available at ECU to the growing number of students, then they will decide to join us. Once we make our case, as we long have, more revenue will follow,” he said.

ECU does need to make its case, but not so much to students as to state legislators and the UNC Board of Governors. Staton had high ambitions for ECU’s expansion and rising academic prominence, but some lawmakers and Board of Governors members think those ambitions are unrealistic for a school that should focus on serving its region.

Kieran J. Shanahan, a Raleigh attorney and ECU alumnus who heads the university’s board of trustees, said the lower expectations are reflected in state funding. By his accounting, funding among the UNC system’s largest schools breaks down to $24,000 per student at UNC-Chapel Hill, $20,000 per student at N.C. State University and $13,000 per student at East Carolina University.

Shanahan said ECU is serving the state’s economy well, but it needs more state support. “It’s an economic engine, but every engine needs fuel,” he said. He proposes that funding be trimmed from the largest and most prosperous schools and given to those trying to reach the next level. “We could have four or five flagship (schools) over time without any additional net investment,” he said.

Staton was pointing ECU in the right direction, Shanahan said.

“There are two competing visions for East Carolina: Are you going to be a regional school or are you going to be a national university?” he said. “I believe we ought to think boldly. We have every reason to believe we can take our place among the great national universities.”

Barnett: nbarnett@newsobserver.com, 919-829-4512