A couple of weeks ago an article by Pam Kelly appeared on The Assembly website and was titled “The Ill-Fated Chancellor” It was about my alma-mater East Carolina University and it has sparked a debate among alumni like myself; what is the soul or identity of a university and when should you stray from that identity? The article chronicled the university’s efforts to expand its map in terms of status and standing under the leadership of Chancellor Cecil Stanton. The piece was a real commentary on how a university is defined; by the ambitions of a Chancellor who has a personal goal or by the regional and national mission you have. Or is there room for both?
I started taking classes at East Carolina 30 years ago this fall. I was born in Eastern North Carolina but as a military kid, my family moved around. When it was time to go to college, I wanted to explore my roots and return home to North Carolina. I had always been familiar with East Carolina. Many of my extended family members and my parent’s friends had attended there or had kids who went the E.C.U. Many still referred to it as E.C.T.C. (East Carolina Teachers College). Anywhere you went in Eastern North Carolina homes would fly the skull and cross bones flags in their years and had East Carolina Football bumper stickers that read “E.C.U. Football – Any Team, Any Place”. I was attracted to the sense of pride my people took in this college most people had never heard of. I loved the fact that ECU had a medical school, and its specialty was in rural medicine and primary healthcare, there was a school of arts where regional artist could perform and showcase their art. During the summer I would go to Greenville and hang out. I would get a Cubbies cheeseburger, grab a t-shirt at the University Book Exchange, or a slice of pizza at Alfredo’s. Greenville was an oasis and I wanted to be part of it.
As I read the article on ECU a sense of sadness took hold. I felt like Chancellor Stanton may have felt he was doing the right thing, but it was clear that by doing so it really made ECU a different place. Part of what made ECU so special was the can-do attitude of the place. The idea that my alma mater would take anyone and give them a chance. But Stanton was looking to change that. As a new student myself in 1991 I got to East Carolina with good grades, a Pell grant, and a decent SAT score. But was also essentially a first-generation student and I needed more help to be great than I knew. East Carolina knew just what to do with me.
The three things East Carolina offered were People, Place and Purpose. From the moment I got there it was the people that made ECU special. I arrived in July of 1991 for orientation and from jump I felt like I was a Pirate. My Orientation Leader, she was cool and practical, and she offered me advice that I still use with my students to this day. Advice like, have fun but pick your spots, party only one night a weekend, go to study hours with professors, the basics. There was my academic advisor, a woman who was getting chemo for breast cancer but still smoked cigarettes in the office using a long holder and was surrounded by plants and sunlight. She never told me what classes to take but discussed how my classes make me a better person. There was my African American Literature professor who was a former Marine Drill Sergeant and would lecture while holding his newborn son in class. There was my American History professor, a Duke educated, white haired man with suspenders and a tweed jacket who started every lecture with “welcome scholars to the Harvard on the Tar, prepare for learning!” and then let loose on beautiful lectures that held me on the edge of my seat. My program board advisor who had a long, Walt Whitman Beard, took me out for a beer when I turned 21, and loved rock music as much as I did. East Carolina was also where I met my wife in Fletcher Residence Hall.
The place was also special. Ficklen Stadium would light up in the fall for football and pulled pork BBQ, Joyner Library was a place you can get lost and learn in peace, Mendenhall Student Center offered free movies every Friday and I was introduced to Richard Linklater movies, saw the Spin Doctors in concert, and ate lunch in the café. There was my dorm room in Fletcher where the sun peeked through the window at the perfect time each weekend to enjoy a nap. It looked over downtown where we could look out and see if it was a goodnight to go to a concert at the Attic or dance at the Elbow. We were 50 minutes from Raleigh and 50 minutes from Atlantic Beach and the region was a place where you can get lost in the Tobacco fields or hike along the Tar River. It was a place that rejected pretension and was built for practicality.
But most of all, the East Carolina I knew gave me purpose. The staff there helped me get a job with WITN-TV, the local NBC affiliate as the morning news Assistant Producer. It helped me understand that I did not want to do that in the future. I found purpose when I became an Orientation Leader myself, was named Student Union President, and lived in my hall. What was great about East Carolina was that it was a place that encouraged you try things out, there were lots of opportunities for guys like me who were first learning the system to get involved and to excel. When I was a student, I produced concerts for over 10,000 students, helped pass a campus referendum to expand the library, served on the activity and service fee committee, designed the new student handbook, and countless other opportunities. I know I am the professional I am today because I was able to explore and sample different life directions.
My fear is when we stray too much from who we are we lose those things that make us special. East Carolina is a place for Eastern North Carolina, and it should be proud of that. And today it is more important than ever. Higher education is under attack from folks who do not feel it provides the same opportunities as in the past. That we are obsessed with things other than the students we serve, and I can see why. Chancellor Stanton looked beyond his region and this tends to tick off the regulars at Parker’s BBQ on the loop. ECU is a university for our people to become a nurse, teach 3rd grade, open an insurance agency, or become an Executive Director of a Florida University Consortium. ECU doctors are the ones who spank you on the bottom on your first day, and help your family decide when you father, at 52, is ready to be called home. The professors there are the kind who recognize talent and cultivate it or understand when you are struggling and spend the time to get you whole. Just like the grammar professor who spent six weeks after the semester to tutor me because I failed his class, and he was not going to allow that to happen.
Do not get me wrong, I love that ECU was never scared of competing against the big teams. The times we beat N.C. State or the University of Miami in football filled me with pride. However, there is a difference between that and limiting access for the regions kids who grow up dreaming of being a Pirate. While Eastern North Carolina has its challenges in college prep, ECU stood as an aspiration opportunity for so many people that I know. If it had not been there, then I am not sure what me ancestorial would have been like. East Carolina made me; I hope that it will be there for decades to come to help others realize their dreams.