Cover story


By Mary Schulken ’79

It’s been a long climb for East Carolina, the scrappy little teachers college that always looked up and reached high. In the 1960s, it fought the state’s higher education establishment to become a university, instigating wrenching changes that yielded the current UNC system. In the 1970s ECU fought a bitter political battle for funding from the General Assembly toopen a medical school.

Key steps on a long march


Born: East Carolina Teachers Training School is founded as a two-year teacher’s school that by law cannot offer instruction equal to that offered at Carolina. The school opens in 1909 with 123 students, 104 women and 19 men; the first class graduates in 1911.


Charter amended: The legislature allows ECTTS to offer a four-year, college-level program. The first students to complete the four-year program graduate in 1913.


Going to college: ECTTS is renamed East Carolina Teachers College. Enrollment is about 500. A year later, ECTC awards its first bachelor degrees to Gertrude Chamberlain and Virginia Pigford.



Mastering the subject: ECTC is authorized to begin a master’s degree program.


More firsts: There are enough men enrolled to start basketball and baseball teams, which are called the Teachers. Henry Oglesby becomes the first man to graduate from ECTC. Enrollment passes 1,000.


Advancing by degrees: ECTC awards its first master’s degree to Annie Boone Haskett.


Choose a major: Growth in academic programs allows ECTC to award both bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees.


Losing a letter: Allowed to offer degrees in disciplines other than teaching, ECTC becomes East Carolina College.


Leo takes charge: Long-time dean Leo Jenkins becomes president; enrollment passes 5,000. School of Business and School of Nursing open. First dorms rise on College Hill.

Leo Jenkins


More schools: The School of Art and the School of Music open, joined a year later by the School of Education.


Integrating: Transfer student Hubert Walker becomes first the African-American to receive a master’s degree; a year later Laura Elliot becomes first African-American to become an undergraduate. A two-year construction program begins that adds 10 buildings to Main Campus. The legislature gives ECC $1.5 million to study the creation of a two-year medical program, provided the school raise $4 million on its own.


Good as the rest of them: After a bruising fight that gives birth to the current UNC system, East Carolina College is designated a comprehensive four-year university, as are the state’s two other teachers colleges, Appalachian and Western, and the largest historically black school, N.C. Central.


A drop of medicine: The legislature allows ECU to start a one-year medical training program.


All in the family: ECU officially joins the new UNC system.


Pivotal political victory: Urban legislators finally are persuaded to allow ECU to establish North Carolina’s second four-year state medical school.


It’s official: The ECU School of Medicine is established by an act of the legislature. First medical students enroll two years later.


Dr. Pirate: ECU confers its first Ph.D., in anatomy, to Thomas Curry Jr.


Saving lives: First heart transplant performed at ECU.


Growing like topsy: The student body passes 15,000 with big growth in students seeking advanced degrees. Leo Jenkins dies.


Rising expectations: Average SAT score of entering freshmen breaks into four digits, increasing from 900 to 1015 in four years. Joyner Library collection passes one million books.


Growing by degrees: The number of degree program hits 200, up from 94 in 1982. The university adds 64 new degree programs in 1998 alone—35 bachelor’s degrees and 25 are master’s. The number of doctoral programs in research nearly doubles, from eight to 14.


Enriching students: EC Scholars Program begins, providing top freshman recruits with four-year scholarships and enrichment learning focused on nurturing intellectual curiosity and leadership.

It’s official: The Carnegie Foundation bumps ECU up a notch, rating it a Doctoral Research Intensive University.


Poignant pigskin upset: With eastern North Carolina flooded by Hurricane Floyd, the nation watches the Pirates come from behind to defeat the ninth-ranked Miami Hurricanes, 27-23, in an upset played in borrowed Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh.

Miami win


Room to learn, grow: Final phase of 10-year, $30 million expansion and renovation of Joyner Library doubles the size of the heart of campus academic life.



I’ll take ECU, thanks: Randolph Chitwood, the nationally renowned heart surgeon who pioneered clinical use of da Vinci robotic surgery at ECU, turns down an offer from Harvard University to run its heart institute.


A higher threshold: 36.7 percent of entering freshmen rank in the top one-fifth of their high school class, compared with 29 percent in 1991, reflecting the impact of rising admission standards.


Opening doors: Access Scholars program kicks off, providing freshmen who demonstrate academic merit and financial need with $5,000 annual stipend; fundraising doubles number of scholarships in the second year.


All smiles: N.C. General Assembly establishes a dental school at ECU, the state’s second.


Distance learning: Online enrollment leads the UNC system, hitting 6,079, nearly doubling in four years since 2005, when 3,696 students took classes online. Today, online students compose 22 percent of ECU’s total enrollment.



Academic stars: Honors College is established and welcomes its inaugural class of 105 high-performing students invited to enroll based on academics and character.

Sources: UNC General Administration, ECU Fact Book, ECU Archives

But in recent years the climb has seemed easier. When East Carolina proposed expensive capital projects—new classroom buildings, the East Carolina Heart Institute, the Family Medicine Center—the General Assembly was surprisingly generous and old critics were muted. When ECU proposed opening a dental school, newspapers that once editorially questioned the school’s academic capabilities published supportive opinions. The General Assembly funded the school and has stuck with it through a deep recession.

Charles Jenkins

Why was it so hard back then and so relatively easy lately for East Carolina to gain public recognition and generous state funding? Observers say it’s because ECU proved it could deliver what it promised. Give us the money to build a medical school, ECU said, and we will train family doctors who stay and improve health care in the East. Today the Brody School of Medicine is nationally recognized as a leader for accomplishing that mission. Give us more classrooms and labs, ECU said, and we’ll confront the state’s critical need for teachers, nurses and health care workers. ECU has doubled the number of its graduates entering those crucial professions.

So when East Carolina pointed to a glaring need for more dentists in counties east of I-95 and proposed building the second school of dentistry in North Carolina to address it, its record, its reputation and a sense of momentum weighed in its favor. “ECU already has a fine track record of looking out for the health care interests of rural residents,” said an editorial in the Raleigh News & Observer.

After a trip of a century, perhaps it’s time for East Carolina—and its alumni—to ask: Are we there yet? And if so, how do we know?

Charles Jenkins ’66 ’67 ’68 heard the talk about East Carolina College from some teachers in his rural eastern North Carolina high school. “Based on a few comments teachers made, ECU was in a developing stage, a stage of developing its academic reputation,” says Jenkins, a retired university administrator.

But it was the graduates he knew personally, not the talk he heard, who shaped his view of the institution. “My positive image of ECU was based on a number of teachers and coaches in the public schools who had gone to ECU and the positive image they had,” he says.

Jenkins had bumped up against a defining factor in East Carolina’s life: the school’s origins. As a teachers college sprung from a rural region, it lacked the standing and history other institutions enjoyed. “It suffered from the fact it was ECTC (East Carolina Teachers College),” says Jack Claiborne, retired associate editor for the Charlotte Observer and longtime observer of the state’s higher education. “The promise of the teacher colleges by the end of World War II was beginning to sound hollow.”

Fast forward to 1996, and the picture looks different. When Michael Aho ’02 was shopping for colleges, the strength and national reputation of East Carolina’s special education program drew the attention of the honor student from Virginia Beach. He wanted strong academics and a robust campus life, including football and marching band.

Michael Aho

“Before I got there and when I was there, my sense was it was a place on the rise, a place doing what it needed to do to get where it was going,” Aho says. Now an analyst for the federal government covering United Nations peacekeeping efforts worldwide, he credits the depth in teaching and practical learning experiences he gained at ECU for landing him in a field where he is thriving.

Aho, too, had bumped up against a new defining factor in East Carolina’s story: Its academic maturity and competence. His and Jenkins’ experiences, some 40 years apart, bookend the journey the university has made and its change in standing.

“It works hard at teaching and research and public service and when you do those things well, you develop a reputation that’s gold,” says Bill Friday, who presided over the UNC system for 30 years.

How do you measure success?

On the football field, East Carolina prides itself on playing hard teams and winning games with an underdog attitude. A competitive football program has provided a visible rallying point for the institution’s growth. Yet sustainable academic maturity—growth in scholarship, funding and outreach
—along with a record of public service, are what boosted its standing and changed perceptions. The numbers tell the tale.

In 1982 ECU had 14,510 students; it offered 93 degree programs and conferred 2,646 diplomas. By 2009 everything had doubled. Enrollment was 27,654; the university offered 202 degree programs and conferred 5,589 diplomas. It’s been the fastest-growing UNC campus for several years, still third overall in enrollment to N.C. State and, just barely, to UNC Chapel Hill.

Alisa Chapman

“It’s one of the really great stories of growth, but not just growth for growth’s sake; there’s quality in programs and initiatives and service,” says Friday, who remains the unofficial dean of higher education in North Carolina.

Alisa Chapman ’96 ’06 ’09 considers Friday a mentor. As associate vice president for academic affairs for the UNC system, she directs policy for K–16 education. She has turned to him with questions and to talk through ideas. In more than a decade working in North Carolina’s system of higher education, she has learned to recognize practical milestones that signal a campus’s growth. They include expanding enrollment, an array and diversity of programs, high standards and applied research.

“In that sense I believe ECU has arrived,” Chapman says. “There are a number of areas it has confidence and a culture of confidence in its expertise.” Examples are growing school leaders, distance and online education and rural health care.

Jenkins spent 39 years at UNC Pembroke, 16 as provost and chief academic officer and a year as interim chancellor. He helped guide that institution’s growth into a leading provider of teachers and school administrators in southeastern North Carolina. So he knows from experience what it takes to build a university’s standing. “The largest contributor to one’s reputation and integrity is years of service and length of tenure,” Jenkins says. “It takes some time.”

Yet it also requires specific credentials.

For six years Jenkins visited institutions in other regions as a commissioner for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. SACS looks at certain criteria to judge the academic health of a university, he says. Among them: The quality of the faculty based on their scholarly preparation and participation in research. Documentation the institution and students are doing quality work. Financial and physical resources that support academic excellence. He sees large strides in those areas at ECU in the five decades since he was a student.

Look at ECU’s numbers, he says. Since 1982 bachelor’s degree programs more than doubled, from 51 to 110. Master’s degree programs show a similar spurt, from 36 to 76. Doctoral degree programs in research and scholarship more than tripled, from five to 16.

Then-and-now snapshots of the faculty show it’s not only much bigger but also more diverse. Since 1995, the faculty grew by 639 members, the numbers of women increased 8 percent and the number of minorities rose 10 percent.

Similarly, snapshots of the student body and freshmen classes in 1995 and 2009 show campus diversity and test scores rising. Minorities in the student body increased from 12.3 percent to 20 percent. In 2009, more students were coming from urban counties such as Wake, Mecklenburg and Cumberland. Students were coming from 33 states. The average SAT of entering freshmen rose from 913 to 1046.

Diversity is particularly important because it’s a key component of academic maturity. It signals a university has broad appeal and offers students a rich learning experience, says ECU Provost Marilyn Sheerer. “Our students will be working in a very diverse world. We need to be able to prepare them in an institutional setting for what they will face,” she says.

Mary Chatman

Mary Chatman ’90 ’96 ’10, senior vice president and chief nursing officer at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah, Ga., graduated salutatorian of her small high Hyde County high school, then earned her first-ever D in a chemistry course at ECU. She needed a college experience, she says, that was varied and rigorous. She found it.

“What I realized was that I had become at expert in high school at reading, memorizing and ‘regurging’,” she says. “I learned instead at ECU to take the knowledge and apply it. It’s a university that takes academics seriously.”


Show me the money

Rob Nelson was in charge of the numbers for the UNC system as its vice president for finance until retiring in 2010. He did not graduate from ECU, but observed it as a child growing up in Pitt County. “The physical transformation I saw and experienced … is ECU has certainly grown up facility-wise, and is, in my view, competitive with UNC Greensboro, UNC Charlotte and N.C. State, excluding the Centennial Campus, and to some degree, UNC Chapel Hill,” Nelson says.

State appropriations, Nelson says, shows ECU has financial momentum. Its ability to get capital funding from the state legislature is a critical indicator of clout, he says. ECU’s momentum perhaps began when it ranked third among the 16 UNC campuses, behind larger N.C. State and UNC Chapel Hill, in construction dollars per full-time equivalent student it got from the $2.5 billion university bond referendum passed by voters in 2000.

ECU’s momentum built in 2004, Nelson says, when the legislature approved $380 million in spending for health-related university facilities. UNC Chapel Hill’s new cancer center and the cardiovascular center at ECU accounted for two-thirds of that money.

In other areas of funding, Nelson sees ECU lagging. Although it’s the third-largest campus, it consistently ranks fifth or sixth among the 16 UNC schools in state appropriation per full-time equivalent student, he says. By that same measure, it ranks consistently sixth or seventh among its national peers. ECU ranks fourth, behind Chapel Hill, N.C. State and N.C. A&T, in sponsored research dollars, he says.

Throughout its growth, East Carolina has been the underdog, Nelson says. But it turned that position into a winning strategy. “Rather than feeling inferior and sorry for itself, ECU has fought hard and pushed folks to recognize the school’s potential and demanded the resources to grow and succeed,” he says.

There’s no doubt East Carolina once had to fight hard for every dollar. In an oral history for Mary Jo Bratton’s book on the school’s history, ECU President Leo Jenkins described how money followed reputation in a pyramid of education power and money in North Carolina. Legislators believed “Woman’s College (now UNC Greensboro) and (UNC) Chapel Hill should, and State should be the apex. They should be at the top. They should have the most money. They should have the best instruction and the most difficult courses. In the middle would be East Carolina, Appalachian and maybe West(ern) Carolina. At the bottom of the apex should be the black colleges and the Indian college, Pembroke.”

The underdog wins

Pine forests and the occasional tobacco field line U.S. 264 until you hit Greenville’s city limits, and the landscape suddenly changes into the sleek architecture of a modern medical center. Several new medical buildings partially shield an older one farther off the highway. That’s the nearly 40-year-old, five-story concrete building housing the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University. It’s never been pretty, but it is loved.

Health Sciences Campus

Ask almost anybody what factor changed ECU’s image the most, and they will tell you it was securing a medical school against powerful opposition, then building it into a pipeline for primary care doctors. “ECU has done what it says it would do by bringing improved health care to eastern North Carolina,” says Charles Mercer, a Raleigh attorney who sits on the UNC Board of Governors. Mercer, who grew up in eastern North Carolina, was a student at UNC Chapel Hill during much of the medical school debate.

“I think the success of the medical school and the other increased academic offerings has had a transforming effect on that university not just in North Carolina but throughout the U.S. and beyond,” he says.

The numbers, again, offer proof. Both Appalachian State University and ECU started as teaching colleges. Nelson compared the full-time equivalent enrollments of those campuses in 1972 and 2010 as well as their appropriations. Here’s what he found: ASU is 2.3 times bigger now than in 1972. Its budget is 18 times larger. ECU is 2.5 times bigger now, but its budget is 27 times larger. “That’s indicative of the growth which could be attributed to the med school and related allied health programs,” Nelson says.

The political fight for the med school cast the former teacher’s college in its signature, unifying underdog role. On the opposite side were some of North Carolina’s most powerful figures and forces: Bill Friday, politicians from the urban Piedmont crescent and editors of the state’s largest newspapers.

Playing the role of the small school striving for a deprived region proved a perfect tool to manipulate debate and direct the emotions of supporters.

Then-President Leo Jenkins seized upon it both to whip up the faithful and shame opponents into getting on board. That often-antagonistic posture put Jenkins, in charge of one of North Carolina’s individual campuses, squarely opposite Friday, head of the newly unified UNC system. It was the same adversarial relationship they had during the university status battle.

“Universities have different ways of making points as they progress. His was challenging things in the public arena,” Friday says. “I saw that beneath that…was a solid wall of caring about eastern North Carolina.”

Friday now says outright that ECU has grown into one of North Carolina’s brightest gems. “It is an aggressive, full partner in the state’s higher education. It has carried its share of that burden and I think done so with great strength.”

ECU’s impact in eastern North Carolina has moved it into an elite group of institutions, he says. “You have in universities the teaching and research. But the best institutions add a third element, the element of public service,” Friday says. “I don’t know any place that does it with a more devoted and creative spirit than East Carolina.”

Ditch the chip, keep the passion

Given what East Carolina has accomplished, can it still play the underdog with a straight face? Has the time for angst and antagonism on behalf of a striving institution passed? Observers like Nelson see a new day. “I think the mere establishment of the new (dental) school speaks volumes of the respect ECU has earned over the last 40 years, in higher education and in the legislature.”

The state’s large newspapers supported the school on the basis that East Carolina’s successful record with primary care doctors put it, not Chapel Hill, in the best position to train rural dentists. “ECU’s medical school has used the same method to recruit and train rural family doctors,” said the Charlotte Observer in an editorial published Nov. 6, 2006. “And what better way to increase the number of rural dentists than to train them in a rural area?”

Even with a sea change in reputation, the strong emotions unleashed by the battles for university status and the medical school have lingered. They lend a harder edge to the feelings of many with direct ties to that chapter of the school’s history—an edge that has begun to feel out of place against the backdrop of today’s university.

“It’s who you ask, and my generation has experienced it,” says Carl Davis ’73 of Raleigh, assistant general manager for WUNC-TV.

“Nobody wants to hear it,” says Aho. “They’ve never wanted to hear it, particularly in the state. Getting on board as a university and the fallout from the medical school and the legislative component are things that happened so long ago they are no longer relevant.”

Aho sees a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude as an anachronism. “Most of it is self-initiated group-think: Let’s share this view with each other so we can share this view with each other,” he says. “All of it, at least, for my contemporaries, is unnecessary. The chip on the shoulder is misplaced.”

Having a determined underdog spirit is healthy, says Charles Jenkins. But having a chip on your shoulder is not. “We are way beyond having a chip on our shoulder when you have accomplished what ECU has accomplished,” he says. “If that’s still there, and it’s not clear to me it is, we need to recognize that’s just baggage.”

Chatman is among less than 1 percent of chief nursing officers for medical centers nationwide who are African-American women. Having a chip on your shoulder doesn’t matter so much as how you respond to that chip, she says. “If you let your ‘chip’ become you, then it’s a liability,” she says. “If you use it to push and constantly become better, that’s an asset.”

Observers say it’s time for East Carolina to ditch the chip—but keep the passion. The energy that once focused on earning respect can now be focused on urgent work at hand—improving health care in the rural East, strengthening schools and supporting a more diverse economy—and on furthering the record of public service that has won the admiration of former opponents such as Friday.

“I don’t know anybody who’s self-conscious about the state of East Carolina University,” says Friday. “Self-conscious is not a phrase to use if you are from ECU. That university is moving. It can demonstrate it’s impacted the region.”

“I think there is a clear view that whatever you think of the university, the people who come out of there are capable of doing the things they do,” says Aho.

So are we there yet?

“We certainly are not there,” says Charles Jenkins. “We won’t ever get there. There’s always changing needs. We need to continue on this same projected path, continue to be strong in service to the region we are bound to and in academic progress.”

About the Author: Mary Schulken ’79 has compiled a stellar career in journalism as a reporter and editor at the Greenville Daily Reflector, as an op-ed page editor of the Charlotte Observer and now as a blogger for Education Week. She remains connected with ECU as president of the Comm Crew, the alumni group for the School of Communication, and as a member of the Board of Visitors.