A year like no other

Interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson talks about his time at the helm and what the future holds for ECU – and himself.

How would you sum up your year-plus as interim chancellor?
Roller-coaster ride. In many ways it has been a difficult and very challenging year. But I have been very well supported by members of our ECU community, and I will be eternally grateful for that support. So while it has been a great challenge, it has also been very rewarding. I certainly have newfound respect for long-serving chancellors like Dick Eakin and Steve Ballard. With just one year in the office, I find their commitment and endurance to be profound. Remarkable leaders for sure.

How would you describe the impact COVID-19 has had on ECU and higher education in general?
COVID-19 is like the toughest final exam you can imagine. We have been and are being tested. It seems like nearly everything we do is a little bit harder. Emotions have run high, and everyone is a bit fatigued. But we Pirates have rallied around the mission. We are still serving our students and our region as best we can. We have certainly needed to expand our toolbox. Even I have gotten good at “sharing my screen.” While I believe there will always be a market for in-person education for young people, I also believe that we are now even better positioned to address nontraditional markets like adult learners. We do “tele-everything” better today than we did 12 months ago, and those capacities will be important in the future.

Mitchelson taught an online geography class at ECU in the fall semester.

Last year we had a cover story titled “Pirates Ascending” about ECU athletics. A lot has changed since then. How would you describe the state of Pirate athletics today and what the near future holds?
ECU athletics is important to our institution and our region. It’s been an historic source of identity and pride for all Pirates and citizens of the East. The disruption to revenues from COVID-19 has challenged our athletic programs greatly. We completed a fiscal sustainability analysis for athletics last spring, and that has provided some key recommendations. We’ve reduced the number of NCAA sports from 20 to 16, and, while necessary, that was very painful for all concerned. I believe that we are very well led in athletics, and we will right the ship. I really like our presence in the American Conference; they are all great universities, and we must compete at that level. We can do that with our current leadership.

What have been some of the top faculty achievements as they’ve dealt with teaching and doing research during the pandemic?
ECU faculty continue to do an outstanding job of educating students. Throughout this COVID episode they have adapted what they do, and they have illustrated a deep concern and compassion for our students. We set a record for retention rates last year, and faculty played the key role in that success. In addition to carrying on the great work of the classroom, they have elevated our research profile. We had the second-largest sponsored program total in history during the past year, and that says a great deal about commitment and resilience.

Mitchelson gives keynote speaker Christopher Chung a chancellor’s coin during the virtual fall commencement in Wright Auditorium.

What have been the biggest rewards of serving as interim chancellor?
Helping to lead a great university like this is experienced by very few people. It’s humbling. It has been a privilege to work with and to serve the campus and our UNC System leaders. The reward that I most cherish is the gratitude expressed by others. They know this has been a difficult year, and many go out of their way to say thank you for staying the course, for steadying the ship. I have had an amazing level of support. The team has pulled together, and I am pleased with that. I have learned that only great teams win.

What will ECU look like this time next year? Will there be significant changes due to the impact of COVID-19?
I certainly hope that COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror and we have all the excitement that students bring when they are on campus. Density will be back! The campus was built for people, and people need to be here. I think we all look forward to welcoming and supporting a new leader, a new chancellor. We’ll be in our new life sciences and biotech building, and we should see significant progress in adaptive reuse of the warehouse district, Intersect East. So there is plenty to look forward to next year.

What is your future at ECU?
My intention is to teach another intro geography class in the spring, to assist the new chancellor with transition and to retire at the end of June. I have had a long and wonderful career, chock-full of great people and memories. After 42 years at three universities, it’s time to relax a bit, get some exercise and spend more time with the grandkids. I will stay busy, and I will always support ECU.

Anything else you’d like to add?
I just want all of Pirate Nation to know how grateful I am for the opportunity to serve. It really has been an honor I shall never forget.