In his final East Carolina Board of Trustees meeting Friday, Interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson let the numbers do most of the talking. Those figures told trustees and the public that over a chaotic 18 months he ensured the ship did more than stay afloat.
Mitchelson, who will be leaving the position on March 15 and replaced by chancellor-elect Philip Rogers, has seen ECU set records in enrollment with a steady rise in graduation rates in 2019-20.
The university now sports the second overall ranking in graduation rates among peer institutions and has the highest research funding growth in the nation since 2016, he said. Long-term debt continues to decline and the school made $976.3 million of total revenue in fiscal year 2020.
ECU’s basketball team also had its first win against an AP Top 5 opponent on Feb. 3.
That’s a pretty good record, considering Mitchelson was appointed to the position only months before the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the United States and world. Among his accomplishments, Mitchelson can add reducing daily virus cases to fewer than 10 a day. The university’s COVID dashboard is ranked in a tie for first among 367 similar university tools. On Wednesday, the infection rate was about 2 percent.
In his presentation to the board, Mitchelson doubled down on his stance that ECU should be a leader in acting against racism and injustice.
“I just want to make sure that we all understand how important this is,” Mitchelson said. “To individuals, to people, who live here, learn here, work here and teach here. How important it is to this region. Whether we talk about individuals and their success or regional success in the aggregate, we’ve got a lot of work to do.
“It’s not just about awareness,” Mitchelson said. “We simply have to do a better job of reflecting the face of this region. We’ve got a ways to go and this university is up to the task. I know it’s a top priority item for our new chancellor and I’m looking forward to his coming.”
Prior to Mitchelson speaking, Todd Inman, chairman for the Staff Senate, voiced the organization’s support for the renaming of five buildings on campus. Faculty Senate Chair Purificación Martínez also mentioned the importance of removing the names of white supremacists from campus structures.
Mitchelson looked back on his tenure as a capstone to his 42 years of higher education, 21 of which have been spent at ECU as a professor, chairman of the Department of Geography, provost and now interim chancellor.
“We always like our students to have that experience,” Mitchelson said. “You learn a bunch of things in the classroom and then you go and put it to use in a capstone experience.”
Board chairman Vern Davenport credited Mitchelson with helping ECU get back into such promising shape.
“I know many of our board of trustees members remember vividly two or three years ago when we were getting beat up about our enrollment, about our fiscal management and just about everything we could get beat up on,” Davenport told Mitchelson.
“You think about where we were and how we were perceived and now and it is a very different place,” Davenport said. “A lot of that is thanks to you and your leadership. You said ECU is a special place, and it is, but that’s because of special people like you.”
Mitchelson said the two constants have been support and a commitment to the institution.
“You all share that commitment in this room full of people and beyond,” Mitchelson said. “Especially the mission. You can have the weirdest of times but nobody can take your mission away and we’ve been on a mission together. That is the success of our students and the success of our region.”
In November, Mitchelson announced he would be retiring in June after teaching one last semester of geography classes.
New names for rooms
Following a closed session, the board reconvened and voted on three campus rooms to be named before discussing new business. The board approved naming a conference room at the main campus student center in honor of Leahmarie Gottlieb and Gigi Curtin, the presidential suite in the Taylor Slaughter Alumni House in honor of Don Leggett and the foyer of the alumni house for Harry Stubbs.
Davenport also reiterated a vote made on Thursday by the athletics and advancement committee in relation to the renaming of buildings. The three criteria to be met, according to Davenport and the committee, are a set of standards for current and future renaming conventions, a comprehensive evaluation of names for campus buildings and to move forward with finding a physical location for Heritage Hall, a museum for the entire history of ECU — good and bad.
New board members
Three board members will be finishing their tenure in June: Davenport, Bob Plybon and Max Joyner. Fielding Miller, vice chairman, and Jason Poole also are up for reappointment at that time. A nominee list was due to be submitted by the end of the day on Friday. The board will have at least three new members in the next few months.