It wasn’t unusual, when officials needed someone to fill in for then-N.C. Central University Chancellor Debra Saunders-White, that they turned to the school’s provost, Johnson Akinleye.
But the out-in-front approach the No. 2 executive took to the acting/interim role was a departure from what’s often happened at campuses like UNC-Chapel Hill in similar circumstances.
It paid off Monday when a search committee, UNC system President Margaret Spellings and the system’s Board of Governors decided he was – in Spellings’ words – “a near-perfect match” for what NCCU needs in its next leader.
Akinleye spoke with The Herald-Sun on Thursday about some of the challenges NCCU faces as the historically black university seeks to grow in the coming years.
Q: What’s the “upside potential” of N.C. Central, in your view, that UNC system President Margaret Spellings spoke of when she charged the committee that led the hiring search for the new chancellor?
A: Right now, the UNC system [universities] together are enrolling roughly 230,000 students. And if you look at what the growth in population is going to be in the next five years, for us to be able to produce enough students, to really meet the demands of the workforce in North Carolina, we’re going to have to grow to close to 300,000 students.
We already have some of our Tier 1 institutions’ enrollment to probably a maximum. And so to accommodate that type of growth, we have to look to some of our mid-sized institutions to do that. I see NCCU as one that will probably provide the opportunity for that growth.
Q: But given the bottlenecks on campus in terms of dorm space and in the instructional arena, aren’t there factors that could also push NCCU to become more selective in who it admits [As of fall 2015, the average SAT of NCCU freshmen was 912, versus 1036 for Western Carolina University, which in fall 2018 will be cutting in-state tuition to $500 a semester]?
A: There’s no question about that. We’re having to make some strategic decisions. And while we don’t want to completely negate the question of access, we have to plan our growth according to our infrastructure.
You can’t build a new dormitory in one year. As you bring in more students you’ve got to accommodate for expansion in instruction. And that’s the reason I always talk about planned growth, as opposed to just growing for the sake of the fact that you can bring them here. Because when those students come, you want to be sure they have the most powerful experience. At some point we have to become probably a bit more selective because of the limitation in those areas we’ve just mentioned.
But my own opinion is we don’t necessarily have to just grow on campus. That’s the reason why we’re developing a robust online program. We want to be sure they can register online without much problem, financial issues can be resolved online, career counseling and all of that. If we do that, we’re also able to accommodate and create that access.
Q: You’re in an area of the city where maybe there are some growth opportunities but also a security situation you’ve talked about on a number of occasions. Can Central function as an island, or is it more integrated into the community?
A: We can’t put up fences, like some private schools do. By the same token, we have to provide the safety for our students.
[We’re] working closely with the city and the county. I met with the city [manager] and the chief of police. We sat down together and said OK, what are the areas of challenge that we have around the perimeters of the institution. And they promised to do a number of things.
We also have taken it upon ourselves to strengthen security on our own campus. While we may not have complete control of the streets that are controlled by the city, at least we can monitor our perimeters much more closely and have surveillance cameras. We’ve given out a contract already now to a security consulting firm to install keycard access, [where] you have to punch in codes, to get into almost, not just into the residential halls, but all of our buildings on campus.
As of two weeks ago, we also approved additional positions for the [campus] police. We are looking into increasing our foot patrol around the campus. We’ve also gone out to contract with a private security firm, a uniformed security, so when the students come in, we have these officers, coming in from 7 p.m. to 12 midnight, patrolling the residential halls, making sure that any suspicious activity we see is reported right away.
Some of the things we think we also have to do [are] really in the economic development, revitalization of the area around our campus. When we see an opportunity to acquire some homes that might not be good-functioning, we purchase them, convert them, and have complete control of those areas.
Q: N.C. Central is partnering with the community colleges. To what extent is the university seeking to reach out and partner with other four-year institutions, like Duke University?
A: This is one of the things I think we don’t do very well.
In research, we already have a lot of partnerships with Duke. In our STEM area there [have] been projects we’ve engaged in over the years [with] co-[investigators] from here and from Duke. But we need to intensify that. There’s also been some conversation with Duke and the physical therapy program there for us to create a master’s degree here, working with Duke. Because of our proximity, we want to really do more than we’re doing with Duke.
With N.C. State University we have the 3+2 program. Last fall we admitted 22 students into the physics program here with the 3+2 program. The physics program here is now growing because of that 3+2, three years here in physics, two years there in electrical engineering at N.C. State.
The community colleges is one where we’re also growing our enrollment without having to bring in new students and look for housing for them. . It saves the state some money, saves the students money, and at the same time we’re aiming to increase our enrollment without having to look for housing for them on campus. So I see us not putting our eggs in one basket as far as growth is concerned.
To tell you the truth, I’d like to expand even more partnerships with more than the four [community colleges] we already have now. Possibly I’d like to have a relationship with all the community colleges in terms of 2+2 programs.
Q: You took a very out-front approach to being interim chancellor. Why?
A: Whether you are interim or you are acting, you are in a job. When I took that assignment, we couldn’t afford to lose any momentum at all. We’d made so much progress, in that if I took the attitude that well, I’m interim and I don’t know what’s going to happen, I was afraid that we’d lose … the message that it sends across the campus would not be good for our agenda, and we would lose momentum. That was my fear.
Q: What are you most excited about, and what are you most concerned about?
A: This is an awesome responsibility. I’m excited about helping to fulfill the potential that I see and working hard to make sure we can reach its potential.
Right now we have a lot of opportunities and perhaps maybe challenges in raising the funds that we need to enhance the School of Business and things like that. But the awesome responsibility that you have, you have these students’ safety and security in your hands now. That’s always something that I’m mostly concerned about, having to call a parent, to break tragic news to them. That’s the most pressing thing I think about all the time, to be able to keep them safe and secure.
- Graduate of Alabama A&M University with a 1982 bachelor’s in telecommunications and 1983 master’s in media technology.
- Earned his Ph.D. in communication studies from Howard University in 1991.
- First faculty post was at Bowie State University in Maryland, went on from there to Bethune-Cookman University in Florida.
- Entered administration as a dean at Bethune-Cookman, moved on from there to Edward Waters College in Florida and eventually became its chief operating officer.
- In 2007, joined the administration of UNC-Wilmington as associate vice chancellor for academic programs, working there with future NCCU Chancellor Debra Saunders-White.
- Hired on as provost of NCCU in 2014.
- Became acting chancellor in August 2016 after Saunders-White’s battle with kidney cancer took a turn for the worse; became interim chancellor after her death that November.
- On June 26, 2017, named NCCU’s 12th chancellor by the UNC system.