Gerlach addresses first faculty convocation
By KIm Grizzard
Saturday, August 17, 2019
ECU faculty members attending Friday's convocation ceremony did not have to wait for Interim Chancellor Dan Gerlach to speak to learn his priorities for the new academic year.
They were spelled out on purple and gold fliers people received when they arrived at Wright Auditorium. At the top were five goals: to increase enrollment, along with external funding and support and to improve the university's financial condition, graduation rates and post secondary outcomes as well as its image.
“It's the same sheet that I presented to the board of trustees in July,” said Gerlach, adding that he valued transparency and consistency in communication.
But that sheet did not serve as an outline for his first faculty convocation address. Gerlach, who began serving as interim chancellor after Cecil Staton stepped down in May, focused his comments on words from the university's creed “educational excellence, responsible stewardship and intellectual freedom.”
Gerlach, who served as an adjunct instructor of public administration at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is former president of the Golden LEAF Foundation, an organization that aimed to increase economic opportunities in the state’s rural and tobacco-dependent communities.
“I'm not here because I think I'm some outsider who comes in and has to teach the faculty some lessons,” he said. “I'm here to learn from the faculty who do their jobs.”
Gerlach said educational excellence was the reason for ECU's inclusion in the Princeton Review's list of 385 best colleges. The university was one of 13 schools in the state to be included in the annual list, released last week.
“The reason why we're included in there is because of the excellence of our faculty, because of the passion of our faculty, the enthusiasm of our faculty, the holistic approach and the engagement that you have with them,” he said. “They (students) say that despite our large size that we're a small and family-oriented campus that does not make you feel small.”
He also pointed to an increase in research awards and in graduation rates as signs of academic success.
Gerlach, who within one month of taking the helm at ECU announced that the university would institute a hiring freeze and begin taking measures to cut $16 million in spending, said Friday that maintaining affordable education and providing funding for scholarships will remain a priority.
“If we look for relief through tuition increases and fee increases, we're going to lose our edge, I'm afraid about getting the students in here who need this the most,” he said.
“One of the major reasons why students leave us, why we don't retain them is not because they can't handle the academic load we put upon them. It's not because we don't have enough interventions around them,” he said. “It's because they run into some kind of crisis that leads them to think they can't afford it, and they retreat to a community college or not any higher education at all.”
Faculty Chairman Jeff Popke, a professor in the department of geography, planning and environment, reminded fellow educators that in addition to enrollment declines, universities are facing increased competition, reductions in public financial support and an increase in public skepticism about the value of higher education.
Popke, who recently returned from Bangladesh, where he was part of a research project focused on riverbank erosion, said he viewed the situation there as an allegory of the threats to higher education.
“It's the specter of being so undermined by currents we cannot control that we risk plunging into the proverbial river,” he said.
Popke said that he and his colleagues could learn from the adaptability and resilience of the farmers of Bangladesh, who accomplish their work through a supportive culture.
He announced that a team of faculty members addressing issues involved in faculty recruitment, mentoring and retention will focus on diversity and inclusion.
“It takes a concerted and collective effort to cultivate a welcoming environment, one in which, all of our faculty and indeed all of our staff and students as well can find a sense of belonging and purpose and maximize their potential,” he said.
“We must as faculty disavow through our principles, actions and pedagogy, contemporary expressions of racism, xenophobia and white supremacy,” Popke said before his comments were interrupted by applause. “Yes, this includes the shocking chant that rang out from our campus some weeks back aided and abetted by the demagoguery and racial animus of the U.S. president.”
Referring to the “send her back” chant, a reference to U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar that began during President Trump's July speech in Minges Coliseum, Popke said his response would be “send her here” to “a community and an intellectual environment that is welcoming, vibrant and inclusive.”
Gerlach made no mention of Trump's visit but said, “appearances here in town recently” have led to questions about how he views free speech.
“My belief in the university community is in our creed,” he said. “Unless we are a university that will reflect diversity in all forms of what we hope for in this community, state and nation, we will not be as good as we otherwise will be.”
Also at Friday's convocation, the following faculty award winners were recognized:
- Sy Saeed, professor, department of psychiatry and behavioral medicine, recipient of 2019 O. Max Gardner Award
- David Wilson-Okamura, professor, department of English, recipient of 2019 Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching
- Baohong Zhang, professor, department of biology recipient of 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award for Research and Creative Activity