Expecting excellence

Researcher Keith Keene

Researcher Keith Keene.

When Chancellor Cecil Staton takes his daily walk across campus to the Starbucks truck, he sees a lot of reasons to make East Carolina “America’s next great national university,” as he likes to say. About 29,000 reasons. But students aren’t all that make Staton confident about ECU’s future. The university also boasts 170,000 alumni, 12 colleges and schools and is one of only 45 universities in the country with schools of medicine, dentistry, engineering and business, as well as NCAA Division I athletics.

“When you begin with all of those things as a foundation, that’s about as good as it gets right now in public higher education,” Staton said at the August 2016 faculty convocation that kicked off the academic year. “ECU is a hidden gem in higher education in this country. And there is no virtue in being hidden,” he said. “We’re going to work intentionally to raise our profile.”

East asked the chancellor to talk about some specifics of his vision for ECU, and here’s what he had to say.

How would you describe where ECU is today?

Many people have heard me say that if ECU didn’t exist, North Carolina would have to create this university to meet the many higher education needs we’re addressing. That’s how absolutely critical this institution is to our state, and increasingly to our country.

More than 10,000 new teachers are needed each year through 2020 in North Carolina alone. At a time when our schools are facing teacher shortages like never before, ECU produces more education leaders than any other four-year institution in the state.

We are also responding to the need for other high-demand professions. At the start of the 2016 school year last fall, 43 percent of our students were enrolled in health care or STEM-related programs. Our growing engineering program recently celebrated its 500th graduate. Monica Sasser, a 2017 graduate from Goldsboro who was profiled during our May commencement, is just one example of a student who received a bachelor’s degree in engineering in May and was swiftly employed at GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceuticals in Zebulon.

Air Force ROTC Cadet Josh Cole.

Air Force ROTC Cadet Josh Cole.

We’re answering the need for more primary care providers, the family physicians who serve every need from maternity to the flu, in multiple ways. The nationally recognized Brody School of Medicine leads the state in the percentage of medical graduates training or practicing primary care in North Carolina five years after completing school. That’s a huge return on investment as we invest our resources in people who stay here. Top-notch Pirate nurses are critically important to the future of health care in North Carolina, and nearly 90 percent of our graduates (the most in the state among four-year schools) remain in state to provide care. The numbers are much the same for allied health service specialties, which includes everything from dietitians and audiologists to physical therapists.

Our impact extends far beyond the region. From Sylva in the west to Elizabeth City in the east, ECU’s School of Dental Medicine is training dentists with a special interest in providing care to the underserved, bringing the very latest, cutting-edge skills to rural areas. We are also extending our reach past the boundaries of our state and nation. ECU students are studying in more than 50 countries, and our award-winning Global Academic Initiative, in partnership with 62 institutions in 33 countries, is bringing international experiences to students right here on our campus.

All across the university, our faculty are making exciting discoveries in many disciplines. Earlier this summer, physics professor Yong-Qing Li made a significant breakthrough in his ongoing laser research that could open new possibilities for the future of space exploration. Even as we look to the future, our students and faculty are also at work uncovering the past. For three years in a row, ECU graduates have made up the largest number of new practitioners added to the Register of Professional Archaeologists. Just this past fall, ECU anthropology professor Megan Perry, working with her team on the Petra North Ridge project in Jordan, garnered international attention for the discovery of a remarkable pair of marble statues of Aphrodite and Eros dating from the second or third century A.D.

We’ve learned that as Pirates we are ‘undaunted.’ I love that word. It means we are fearless and unafraid to grasp opportunity.

As evidence of that, USA Today recently published the results of a medical school ranking that put Brody No. 1 in affordability.

We should be proud of these contributions and what this university has become. I don’t believe any other university provides the return on investment for North Carolina that ECU does.

In an ideal world, where would you like to see ECU in five years?

ECU has done an extraordinary job developing 12 colleges and schools that are closely aligned with the skills employers and graduate schools are seeking, and students from across America are discovering the difference. Enrollment continues to grow – at a very healthy rate – as students turn here for an education that makes them strong competitors for 21st-century jobs. In fact, ECU is ranked among the top 10 percent of universities in the nation for the economic value added to our graduates.

We are well on our way to becoming America’s next great national university, and I believe that within five years we’ll be recognized as such. Here are some markers that will serve as guideposts along this journey:

The new health sciences student center.

The new health sciences student center.

GOAL 1: In the next five years, we plan to double the amount of research activity across our university. 

We must do this to provide our students opportunities to develop their critical-thinking skills and to generate health care treatments, new technologies and other innovations that change our world for the better. That very practical experience with research helps our students become problem-solvers who learn to work collaboratively, just as they will in the workforce they’ll join.

GOAL 2: We plan to double the number of ECU students participating in international experiences. 

Our students will live and work in the global, knowledge-based economy, which looks very different from the one in which many of us began our careers. For them to be prepared, ECU must become a gateway to the world. This will involve more opportunities for study abroad, more international faculty, more students from other countries on our campus and increasing use of technology to bring the world to ECU.

GOAL 3: Five years from now, we’ll be well into the public phase of a $500 million comprehensive campaign to raise funds to support initiatives at ECU. 

We will do what all great universities must do – raise the resources to fulfill our aspirations and provide our students an ECU education that prepares them to change their communities, North Carolina, our nation and even the world.

What are your goals for ECU’s new strategic plan, and how do you see it helping accomplish your vision for ECU?

We are in the process of extending our current strategic plan following the completion of the UNC system’s new strategic plan. It’s important to ensure that our priorities and goals align with those of the system to which we belong. Fortunately, there is significant synergy and correlation between ECU and the system.



If you ask, what is your horizon, you may be saying what are your limits. Or we imagine it’s so far, we can never get there. But if we want to be more positive, the question could just as easily be what are your possibilities? What is your scope? What is your prospect? How far can you see? How far can you go?


Our strategy continues to focus on student success, public service and regional transformation. But we will look to the markers I mentioned earlier as measures of our success. ECU will continue to focus on making education accessible to students who come from tough circumstances—through programs such as our COAD 1000 course and Access Scholarships—while ensuring they have the support to succeed and graduate. I’m very pleased that graduation rates have been improving – trending up for five of the past six years.

It goes back to what I said earlier: We are uniquely North Carolina’s university because of the substantial contribution we are making across the state, but we intend to increase our impact even more in the years ahead.

Performers rehearse for ECU’s February production of 1776.

Performers rehearse for ECU’s February production of 1776.

Thinking about the attributes you’ve said you envision for ECU – global focus, national university, and so on – have you encountered any resistance or anyone saying that’s not ECU’s role? If so, how have you responded?

I’ve stated publicly that the greatest threat to our success is small-mindedness. It’s natural for people to find change uncomfortable, and institutional culture is one of the hardest things to transform. But how will we ever get to the next level if we don’t evolve and refine ourselves as times change?

It won’t be easy, but I believe the ECU spirit includes a very determined streak. It’s a can-do attitude that doesn’t like to quit or shirk a tough challenge. We actually like high goals, and we’ll push hard to achieve them. As I visit with Pirates in many different professions, I’m finding that most believe fully in ECU becoming America’s next great national university. They’re very proud of all that’s been accomplished. And they want the world to know about it.

What role does rebranding play in helping ECU achieve these goals and why?

That is another priority for the next few years. We must increase our state’s awareness, and even America’s awareness, of our university and its extraordinary capabilities and contributions. I am always surprised by how little is known about the ECU of today or how our much our brand is tied to the ECU of a few decades ago. We need to make sure our university brand is well-known – and accurate.

We will make big improvements in the way we tell our story and by doing a better job in the way we market the university. Look for some initial steps in this direction this fall.



We must raise money because that is what great universities do. We can’t just leave fundraising to the elite schools and hope for the best with public funding. But we must recognize that behind every dollar raised by our campaign, it is essential that there be great ideas – transformational dreams and aspirations about where ECU can go.


How can students, faculty/staff and alumni help ECU become America’s next great national university, achieve a global focus and do the other things you envision for the university?

There is a lot to be done. But the important work begins internally with each of us. I’m encouraging everyone to remain focused on the goal and share ECU successes to any who will listen. Each of us can be a persuasive and very credible ambassador for the university if we stay positive and are not distracted by competitors or naysayers.

No doubt, we’re not perfect, and we’ll make mistakes. But it’s time for us, as a team, to step up and play in the majors. This is a great university with a great mission. I’m inspired by this place and its people every single day. And I know that together we are going to make great things happen.