In spite of challenges, the future of ECU is bright

The ECU sign facing 5th street on campus is seen on Jan. 9, 2018.
The ECU sign facing 5th street on campus is seen on Jan. 9, 2018. cseward@newsobserver.com

She’s an angel, they said. Kind-hearted. Loving. A miracle worker who kept people fed, medicine ordered and fears allayed. An ECU hero, Dr. Michelle Skipper made such a strong mark on the recovery from Hurricane Matthew that she won the Governor’s Award for Public Service in November. It’s the highest honor a state employee can receive.

Another ECU hero is Dr. Margaret D. Bauer, an ECU professor of literature and writer who is described as bringing a “frightening energy” to studying, publishing and promoting the literature of our state. Gov. Roy Cooper honored her with the state’s top civilian honor.

And there’s Dr. Douglas K. Schneider, who gained national news and social media attention this year for his unexpected, late-night visit to the library to help students studying for an accounting exam. Some suggested he should be named “Professor of the Year.”

These are extraordinary stories of service and achievement, and there are so many more. They’re stories about heart, love, energy and commitment. They’re stories about the essence of ECU.

I became convinced early on that ECU passion had already made it a great university and would soon make it America’s next great national university. Heroes like these deserve a place among the great American universities.

There are some who say it’s a stretch to make this bold claim for ECU. But when I see the performance of so many people just like Bauer, Schneider and Skipper, I know just about anything is possible. In my two years here, I’ve seen amazing scientific discoveries coming from ECU labs, an ongoing commitment to innovation and leadership with the new lab school and the Rural Prosperity Initiative. I saw the Brody School of Medicine recognized as first in North Carolina and second in the nation for educating family medicine doctors who stay in-state. And I saw students achieving great success across campus. While we had a tough year in football, basketball and our start-up year for lacrosse, we saw great successes in baseball, volleyball, women’s golf and indoor track. And I know all of our very competitive coaches are fully committed to success.

We’re energized, as well, by our recent agreement with 14 community colleges that will make the transition to ECU seamless for students who earned an associate degree. We won approval for a new School of Rural Public Health. We kicked off renovation of the football stadium, opened the Health Sciences Student Center and neared completion of our new East Campus Student Center. To put an exclamation point on the year, we launched a new evening commencement ceremony, highlighted by fireworks and a speech from alumnus and head of the U.S. Small Business Administration Linda McMahon.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that ECU passions are not always united, and a vigorous campaign to dismiss our athletics director was followed by his decision to leave. Passions were also stirred by the ECU Foundation’s decision to purchase a new residence for the chancellor, since the traditional residence needs restoration and repair. While no state money or tuition money was involved, some felt the investment was too much. Campus issues affecting universities across the U.S. also affected us. Two of the issues, fraternities and sexual assault, will be a continued focus going forward. Our commitment to freedom of speech and civility will also remain a priority.

During the coming academic year, we can expect new challenges. That’s not new for ECU. Aggressive campaigns attempted to stop the launch of the college in 1907, and in later years, when efforts were made to expand majors beyond education, we endured attempts to stop the medical school and the dental school. This year, we saw a bill to fund a badly needed new building for our aging medical school die in committee without serious consideration. We were handed the largest budget cut for any of the state’s public universities: $1.1 million, with no reasonable explanation. And with the budget cuts and reduced spending, we continue to absorb the increasing costs of the K-12 lab school assigned to ECU by the General Assembly. These are not small challenges. But we’ll address all of them. It’s our nature. It’s what Pirates do.

With more than 110 years of heroes just like Professors Skipper, Bauer and Schneider, this institution has succeeded against the longest odds. And we will continue to do the work that takes ECU to its rightful place among great American universities. After two years as chancellor, this institution and its tenacious commitment to student success, public service, and regional transformation continue to inspire me. There is much, yet, to be done. Go Pirates!

Cecil P. Staton is Chancellor of ECU.