Another Glaring Tale of HBCU Disparity in East Carolina

Last July, East Carolina University Chancellor Steve Ballard announced that he would retire from his position after 12 productive years. This week, the campus forwarded finalists for his replacement to UNC System President Margaret Spellings, who says she will select a finalist by May 1. From the East Carolinian:

“I want to develop a relationship with that person just as I have with Chancellor Ballard,” said Spellings. “He’s a major leader of a major part of the system.”

The ECU search, when it concludes, will have lasted just under a year in length and having spanned the nation for the person who will define the vision for the region’s academic and economic future. The system and its leadership is right to take its time in finding the person who will face issues like college affordability, racial and ethnic tolerance on campus, athletic development and industrial connectivity.

But, it is also another demonstration of North Carolina’s complete disregard for its public HBCUs, which meet the same challenges, but work with far fewer resources and political goodwill surrounding them. East Carolina took its time to find a new leader, but Elizabeth City State University essentially fired one chancellor and appointed another in less than a month.

Stacey Franklin Jones resigned after less than 14 months on the job last December, and was replaced on an interim, and then permanent basis by current chancellor Thomas Conway on Jan. 26. For a school that has struggled to stand against the winds of budget cuts, attempted closure, a massive public safety scandal and falling enrollment, prevailing wisdom would suggest that the UNC System would take longer to find the ideal candidate to lead the institution towards financial autonomy and legislative accountability.

Instead, system leaders rushed to find someone who seemed like he would be a good fit to lead an HBCU. And that’s not to disrespect Dr. Conway’s record or ability as a chancellor, but it is to specifically point out that East Carolina did not get the same treatment for its chancellor search, and no one – black legislators, media, alumni, students – seems to care about the difference in approach for the two campuses

Why does a longer search matter in higher education? Search firms work with campuses to decide what they are seeking in a leader, and to do that, firms speak with students, alumni, faculty and board members to establish priorities, best practices, shortcomings, and visions for what an ideal chancellor looks, acts and thinks like.

For Elizabeth City State, that never happened. Jones quits and a new chancellor is appointed on the heels of winter break, leaving no opportunity for appeal or protest from any Viking constituency. It is a good bet that Spellings, who didn’t arrive in North Carolina until last month, was probably apprised of the leadership change and signed off on the selection, because she was probably told that the school wouldn’t be around for another calendar year in its current form.

Since she arrived, hundreds of students at HBCUs and PWIs across the state have protested her arrival, but they’ve done so based on her previous engagement with the George W. Bush White House and her work with conservative organizations. But if students want a real reason to protest her appointment, they don’t have to look further than the system’s inequitable treatment of ECSU, and the long-term implications of its mistreatment.

Only the UNC System would put in its press release announcing Dr. Conway’s permanent appointment a specific line about ECSU’s struggles with enrollment and finance, and its “support” partnership with ECU, a PWI less than 100 miles from its campus gates. Only the UNC System would take two weeks without a search to select a chancellor for its most vulnerable member school, serving one of the state’s most economically depressed areas.

But only us, black folks and HBCU supporters, would let the System get away with it, and the damage that is soon to come.

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