As I’m closing in on my last few days as UNC Pembroke’s chancellor, I’m taking stock of all that has transpired under my watch. It’s easy for a university chancellor to feel a sense of ownership of the campus, but that feeling isn’t quite right. If anything, a chancellor is a steward — a caretaker — of the university for a brief period of time over the life of the institution.
In fact, I am reminded of a track team running a relay. Passing a baton is the perfect metaphor for a university changing hands from one chancellor to the next.
When UNC Pembroke was handed off to me, it had undergone tremendous growth, both in enrollment and in the development of the campus environment, including a new stadium and football program. Later, in my chancellorship I cut ribbons to open a state-of-the-art Health Sciences Building and Cypress Residence Hall — both of which had been planned during the Meadors/Jenkins years.
Once I had the baton, I set goals of my own, including raising the university’s academic profile, recasting UNCP as a student’s first choice, and reaffirming this school’s engagement with the region and connection to the Lumbee culture.
And like a teammate running in a relay, I find myself looking over my shoulder as I’m finishing up my lap, before I pass the baton. Seeing what’s behind me, I’m satisfied with the race I’ve run.
The freshman retention rate improved, the number of students graduating on schedule is increasing, and the overall grade point average of all students is steadily on the rise. Our students are now strong contenders at state, regional, and national competitions. This fall we will welcome one of our largest and best-prepared freshman classes in our history.
We are becoming an institution of choice. New students are saying more and more frequently that UNCP was their first choice as a university; some applied nowhere else. We now offer a more robust campus experience where students enjoy campus life, engage in service-learning, conduct original research with faculty mentors, and have access to meaningful internships. Our focus on engaged learning has earned UNCP the prestigious “Community Engagement Classification” from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, one of only 240 colleges and universities with that distinction.
During the last few years, UNC Pembroke embraced its role as a resource for this part of North Carolina by establishing a master’s degree in nursing, by entering into agreements with community colleges to simplify the transition from two-year schools to a baccalaureate program, and by serving as a resource to small business development.
In a less tangible — though no less important — way, we incorporated elements of American Indian culture into the university’s Commencement exercises. Now, we celebrate graduation on the historic Quad next to Old Main, with students and faculty processing in to the Quad, led by Lumbee Ambassadors in their regalia, all of us walking to the music of a Native American flute. This new tradition reminds us of our link to the past as we march to the future.
As I pass the baton to Dr. Robin Cummings, there are some projects currently underway and new challenges on the horizon. One particularly ambitious — and potentially the most impactful — project already in progress is the Entrepreneurship Incubator in the Pembroke town center.
The Entrepreneurship Incubator matches teams of faculty and students with the energy and enthusiasm of hopeful entrepreneurs to create new businesses for Pembroke and the region. This fall, Dr. Cummings will have the honor of cutting the ribbon on that achievement.
Likewise, the Southeast American Indian Studies program is poised to take its place as a research hub for studying the history, culture, and influence of the American Indian. And there are other plans — for a new Student Health Services building and further campus development — drawn up in a master plan that is waiting to come to life.
Dr. Cummings’ challenges will certainly include adapting UNC Pembroke to the state’s shifting priorities and shrinking resources. Salary freezes over the years have caused salary compaction among employees, in particular faculty, and will need to be addressed soon. A stable enrollment, especially among students earning a master’s degree in education, will continue to require attention. Most pressing for Dr. Cummings, I suspect, will be building an executive team of cabinet members and deans who will partner with him to carry out his objectives.
Dr. Cummings has already given us a glimpse of some of his priorities. They are exciting goals, including pursuing programs in allied health fields and perhaps a doctoral program. He also plans to build on UNCP’s growing athletics program and to launch a capital campaign. I have no doubt Dr. Cummings will accomplish these ambitious — and completely on-target— goals.
Most importantly, Chancellor-elect Cummings has shared his litmus test for decision making at the university: Is it good for our students? Is it the best opportunity for the university? Does it prepare UNCP for the future? I can’t think of a better rubric to guide UNC Pembroke into the future.
So, I’ve looked back at what we’ve accomplished, and now I’m closing the gap between me and Robin Cummings. I am ready to place this baton firmly into his capable hand, and clearly he is ready to take it.
Here’s to races run, and, Robin, here’s to the race to come.