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Questions about ECSU chancellor’s resignation

Questions about ECSU chancellor’s resignation
January 07
00:00 2016
Photo provided by Cash Michaels
Former ECSU Chancellor Stacey Franklin Jones and former UNC System President Tom Ross are shown in this photo.

By Cash Michaels

For The Chronicle

As of Dec. 31, Dr. Stacey Franklin Jones was no longer the chancellor of Elizabeth City State University.

It was the position the mathematician and systems engineer proudly held at the 125-year-old HBCU in northeastern North Carolina for just 14 months, when she made history becoming the institution’s first female leader.

“Together we are embarking on something just shy of phenomenal,” Dr. Jones said after taking over.

But then suddenly, and inexplicably, on Dec. 21 it was reported that Jones had “informed” UNC System President Tom Ross of her decision to step down.

“It was a stunning announcement, and still is,” opined the Dec. 27 editorial of The Daily Advance in Elizabeth City. “Jones, who began work at ECSU in October 2014 and was just inaugurated as the campus’s 10th chief executive in September, was to all public appearances doing a good job of helping the university recover after years of poor management that had led to financial and enrollment struggles.”

HBCU Digest, an online publication covering historically black colleges and universities, in a Dec. 23 article titled, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year to Destroy Elizabeth City State,” stated bluntly, “Make no mistake – the resignation of Chancellor Stacey Franklin Jones was a forced dismissal.”

It added that Dr. Jones ”… was forced to resign due to issues with falling enrollment and its financial aid division,” but a recent state audit would contradict some of that speculation.

Indeed, when she was first appointed, UNC System President Ross, who also stepped down from his post at the end of 2015, first said of Jones, “Over a career that spans three decades, she has proven herself to be a strategic thinker who is engaged, resourceful, innovative and accessible. At this pivotal point in its history, I believe she has the right mix of skills, expertise and passion needed to guide Elizabeth City State University toward future success.”

Apparently something occurred that either convinced Dr. Jones that her future was no longer at ECSU, or forced UNC System administrators to change their view that she was the right leader for the school. The answer may lie in the tawdry mix of politics that has infused itself in the 32-member all-Republican UNC Board of Governors; the demands of the GOP leadership in the state Legislature who once seriously considered shutting ECSU down; and the troubled history of a struggling historically black university in an economically impoverished region of the state.

Add to that mix Stacey Franklin Jones’ own controversial history in academia, and the ultimate answer for her resignation could be any combination of the aforementioned.

The popular meme thus far as to why Jones resigned is that she was given no choice when she resisted attempts by those in the UNC System administration to dictate the direction of the school she was appointed to lead, a direction that already seemed to be chosen once her interim successor took office Monday.

If there is one thing clear about Stacey Franklin Jones, it’s that she took her ability to independently chart a course for the future, based on her vision, very seriously.

There is no question, based on published reports and discussions with ECSU alums and others, that the institution has gone through rough periods with enrollment dropping by over 50 percent in the past five years (from 3307 in 2010, to 1867 currently) since UNC System-wide minimum admission standards were raised. Tuition revenues and state appropriations dropped by nearly $10 million; uninvestigated campus sexual assaults mounted; and even the purpose of the school’s mission was questioned.

ECSU has a proud history, since it’s establishment by the N.C. General Assembly in March 1891, as being a training facility for African-American educators. From 1891 to 1937, it experienced tremendous growth, becoming a four-year teachers college at one point. In 1969, after broadening its educational curriculum, the school was formally named “Elizabeth City State University,” becoming a constituent institution of the UNC System in 1972.

Today it offers a wide variety of baccalaureate programs in business, arts and humanities, education and criminology, among other disciplines.

Ironically, one of the reasons why Tom Ross chose Dr. Jones to head up ECSU was because, “[She] brings to the role of chancellor a rare blend of leadership experience in higher education, industry and government, as well as a practical understanding of how to guide institutions through serious challenges, whether academic or financial in nature.”

At 53, Jones certainly came to ECSU with an impressive academic and professional record.

She was a summa cum laude graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C., and held master’s degrees in numerical science and technical management from Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. in computer science from George Washington University. She then spent several years in the private sector.

Jones was a management and technology consultant just before taking the ECSU appointment. She had also served on the faculty at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Benedict College in Columbia, S.C. Prior to that in 2010, Jones was appointed provost and vice president for academic affairs at Bowie State University.

But when she took office as ECSU chancellor in Sept. 2014, some questioned the appointment.

An article titled, “North Carolina Chancellor Choice Sparks Controversy: UNC Chancellor Choice is Asking for Trouble,” written by Jay Schalin for See Thru Edu, the online publication of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, blasted the UNC Board of Governors for hiring Jones in spite of her two controversial tenures at both Benedict College and Bowie State.

As a dean of the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at Benedict during the mid-2000s, Jones fired two professors who refused to implement the school’s “Success Equals Effort” policy, which based student grades more on effort than actual classroom results.

“By firing [the two professors], Jones committed an egregious offense against academic freedom and integrity, but the real problem is that her conduct exhibited an utter lack of judgment and ethical standards,” wrote Schalin for See Thru Ed.

She left Benedict College in 2009.

In November 2010, Jones left her position under fire at Bowie State University after just four months as provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs. The Faculty Senate charged that she “did not include [them] in important decisions” like reorganizing staff assignments, and gave her, and the school’s president, a vote of no confidence. The Faculty Association head told the Washington Examiner that Jones resigned because “… the faculty would no longer work with her.”

“UNC System officials picked Jones because, not in spite of, her record of short executive stays punctuated by infighting with faculty and staff, along with a startling lack of acuity for higher education management,” HBCU Digest opined.

So how was Jones’ tenure at ECSU shaping up?

A recent state audit of the school’s fiscal standing as of June 30, 2015 showed no evidence of financial mismanagement, and despite a decrease in state appropriations, a $4.5 million budget cut had helped to steer the school toward profitability again. State lawmakers had just approved $3 million to help stabilize the school in the short-term.

The crime rate was down, student recruitment was being better managed, and campus efficiencies were reportedly on the upswing.

Jones had also been promoting ECSU as on track to being “the state’s premier interdisciplinary science university by 2020,” and hoped to have 23 new degree programs approved by the governing boards.

According to State Rep. Robert Steinburg [R-Chowan], Jones, who he felt was doing a good job, had to make some difficult decisions that “didn’t make her popular with everyone,” he told The Daily Advance. “We’re all painfully familiar with the mess that she inherited.”

Two ECSU alums – Inez Eason of Wilmington and Eddie Davis of Durham, both said while many have been discussing Chancellor Jones’ situation, and many had expressed concerns about some of the changes Jones was instituting, they were in a wait-and-see mode since she was still new to the Viking community.

Members of the ECSU Board of Trustees claim that they were as broadsided by Jones’ sudden departure as everyone else, and insisted that if there was pressure for her to leave, it came from the UNC System board, not them.

Thomas Conway, formerly chief of staff at Fayetteville State University and one of the finalists for ECSU chancellor in 2014 when Dr. Jones was ultimately selected, was immediately chosen to become the interim chancellor as of Jan. 1. Published reports indicated that the UNC Board of Governors is actually prepared to select Conway as the permanent chancellor at their next board meeting on Friday, Jan. 22 at N.C. A&T University.

Conway told The Daily Advance that one of ECSU’s priorities now is to grow. Apparently a plan was already in the works, with Conway’s blessing, that East Carolina University, along with NC A&T University, UNC-Charlotte, Fayetteville State University and NC State University, will work with ECSU to help the HBCU “build greater capacity throughout ECSU’s student support and operational units.”

“There was even discussion [during the 2014] legislative session of turning ECSU into a branch campus of East Carolina University rather than continuing as an independent institution with its own administration.” (SeeThruEDU reported Sept. 12th, 2014.)

Indeed, there are indications that there will be a stronger effort to recruit more white students to ECSU, as has happened at other historically black UNC campuses like Fayetteville State University and North Carolina State University. More whites means a greater, more consistent revenue stream, some observers say, since many black students, unfortunately, cannot meet the upgraded system academic requirements, or student loan restrictions.

The UNC Board of Governors, with both the appointment of Interim Chancellor Conway and the multi-campus plan to assist in operations, have now made it known since the departure of Chancellor Jones that, “Elizabeth City State University is an important and essential institution to the University of North Carolina System.”

There are some in the ECSU Viking community who do not like the sound of that, and are concerned that it could be the precursor for ECSU to be merged with another UNC System campus, or dramatically changed into something much different than it’s HBCU tradition.

 

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