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Secrets of the Presidential Turn-Around: Waking up a Sleepy Campus

Waking up a Sleepy Campus
Dr. David G. Carter
Eastern Connecticut State UniversitySometimes, the plans you don’t make lead to the greatest opportunities. Such has been the experience of Dr. David George Carter, president of Eastern Connecticut State University.
Carter, who spent the early stages of his career as a K-12, public school administrator in Dayton, Ohio, before becoming a college administrator, never set out to be a college president. That changed in 1988, however, when friend and colleague, Thelma Ball, called to test his interest in such an opportunity. Initially, he told her he wasn’t interested, but she persisted until he agreed to let her nominate him for the job at Eastern Connecticut. To this day, he says he might never have become a college president had it not been for her call.
“She got me to go for it,” he says.
Named the fifth president of Eastern Connecticut on April 2, 1988, Carter was the first African American to head a four-year postsecondary institution in New England. At the time, Eastern Connecticut was, in his words, a “somewhat sleepy” university.
“The heart of the institution was good, but in terms of being an active place, we weren’t. We thought we had to accept what was given to us as opposed to demanding or asking for that which was needed,” Carter says.
What was needed, he felt, were the planning, resources and leadership required to upgrade and expand campus facilities, increase diversity at all levels and improve the academic program so as to transform Eastern Connecticut into the state’s premier, public liberal arts institution. Carter was sure he had the energy, skill and enthusiasm to lead such an effort. What he didn’t know at the time was that much of this work would have to begin during a period of fiscal austerity. In his second year on the job, the state legislature cut the university’s budget by 7.4 percent.
In the years since, Carter has had to cut the campus budget 21 times. But that hasn’t stopped him and his colleagues from pursuing an ambitious agenda.
“I think I have been fortunate to have a good faculty, a fantastic board of governors, and legislators and community members who have become faithful and loyal supporters of the institution,” he says.
Since Carter assumed office, Eastern Connecticut has added several new facilities to its campus; enrollment has grown by approximately 22 percent, to more than 5,000 students, roughly 13 percent are people of color (about half of these are Black); and the campus has become a diversity leader in the state’s university system in terms of student enrollment, faculty and administrator employment.
Carter has found one of the president’s primary roles is that of a “cheerleader” for his institution. “It’s no different than being a mother and father,” he says. “When times get hard you don’t say, ‘We’re gonna die tomorrow.’ You say, ‘Clouds are ahead, so how are we going to deal with it?’ “
As an African American president of a traditionally White institution, Carter has learned not to let the prejudice of others get in his way. Such an attitude has allowed this president-elect of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and board member of the American Council of Education to win the respect of his peers around the country.
One of the things that most disturbs Carter about today’s postsecondary environment is the failure of college presidents to assert themselves in arenas beyond higher education. Acknowledging that the institutional demands on presidents are enormous, he still believes they are neglecting an important social responsibility.
He says, “I don’t believe we, as presidents, have been as outspoken as we used to be, in the sense of having people look to us to chart the course for the nation.” He cites the hateful rhetoric and confusion that swept the country in the wake of the Sept. 11 crisis as evidence that higher education leaders have failed to adequately lead and ensure that Americans are prepared to function as knowledgeable citizens of a global community.
“If we had prepared people the way we should, we wouldn’t have all the confusion we have had. … We should have, as a nation, a fuller perspective.”
Carter says his inner-city upbringing, his mother and a handful of teachers and professional mentors nurtured him over the years. After more than 15 years in the president’s chair, he advises younger professionals who are considering careers as higher education leaders not to take themselves too seriously.
“Don’t lose your sense of humor and ability to laugh at yourself. When you screw up admit it. … If you say, ‘I made a mistake and I’m sorry,’ (people will) see you as someone they can trust.”  

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