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Conway's decision surprises officials

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Elizabeth City State University Chancellor Thomas Conway (center) listens as state Sens. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, (left) and Angela Bryant, D-Nash, (right) respond to questions during their visit to ECSU, Monday, May 1, 2017.

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Elizabeth City State University Chancellor Thomas Conway’s announcement last week that he plans to retire in May has come as a surprise to area elected officials.

Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, said Thursday he had not expected Conway — who took over as chancellor at ECSU in Jan. 1, 2016 — to retire this soon.

“I caught me kind of off-guard,” Steinburg said. “I wasn’t expecting this.”

But Steinburg said he understands that the chancellor feels the timing may be right for him to retire. Conway, who has worked for the University of North Carolina system for 45 years, said in an interview last week he believes the university is in a place of greater strength and resilience than when he arrived.

Steinburg didn’t disagree with that assessment.

“I think he has done a good job,” he said.

Elizabeth City Mayor Bettie Parker likewise said she was surprised to learn of Conway’s retirement plans.

“It was a shock to me,” Parker said. “I am disheartened by it. l really hate to see him go because he was really working well with the community.”

Parker, herself a graduate of ECSU, said she had attended meetings at which Conway shared his vision for the university, saying she was excited about his goals for ECSU and about his commitment to building a stronger relationship between the university and the community.

 Parker said she appreciated Conway’s leadership at the university and had hoped it would continue a while longer.

“He will be missed,” she said. 

At the same time, Parker, herself a retired educator, said she can’t begrudge anyone the decision to retire.

“I can’t complain because when it was time for me to retire I just retired,” Parker said.

Conway, who was tapped by former UNC President Tom Ross to replace former Chancellor Stacey Franklin Jones, brought great experience to the ECSU chancellor’s job and was a man of patience and humility, Steinburg said. Because of all those characteristics he helped boost confidence in the university among state officials, he said.

“I believe that the General Assembly is committed to the university,” Steinburg said, adding that Conway had helped to soothe legislators’ anxieties about the campus. “As one of the legislators that represents this area I can say that he was a delight to work with and always extremely accessible.”

Now there are encouraging signs of growth and health at ECSU, and a good deal of credit goes to Conway’s leadership, according to Steinburg.

“He is what the doctor ordered,” Steinburg said. “He was perfect for the job. He knew how to work within the system to get things done.”

In announcing Conway’s retirement to members of the UNC Board of Governors last week, UNC System President Margaret Spellings said she planned to appoint Karri Dixon, a UNC System vice president, to serve as interim chancellor upon Conway’s retirement. Dixon has worked closely with Conway during his tenure at ECSU, Spellings said.

There’s been no word from ECSU trustees yet about when the search for Conway’s permanent successor will begin.

Steinburg said he believes Conway has laid the foundation for a successor to keep the positive momentum at ECSU going.

‘We’re moving now in an upward direction,” Steinburg said.

It won’t be hard to recruit an able successor willing to come to ECSU, thanks to the stronger position the university is in now, he said.

Both Parker and Steinburg said they were glad to hear that Conway and his wife, Mychele, plan to continue making Elizabeth City their home. 

“That’s a good thing,” Parker said. “I was hoping (his retirement) wouldn’t come this soon. But as long as he’s staying in the community we can still tap into some of his thoughts.”

Steinburg said Conway’s contributions as a citizen will be most welcome throughout the region.

“I am delighted that they are going to be staying here,” he said.

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