By Sarah Nagem
Dr. Robin Gary Cummings, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, recently sat down with the Border Belt Independent to talk about what’s happening on campus and beyond. Topics spanned from the coronavirus pandemic to the state budget to the university’s role in educating students who will become local business leaders and health care workers.
His answers below have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Tell us about the new building that will house the School of Business.
It is beautiful, and without question, when it’s complete, it will be a showpiece for southeast North Carolina. We’re probably going to move in over the Christmas holidays and then start classes for the spring semester in the building. We’ve had some COVID-related supply chain delays. The building was supposed to finish back in August, and we are still waiting for some of the materials. But it will be a magnificent building. And it’s part of the future southeast North Carolina.
This area has so many good things about it, but certainly the challenge is there when it comes to business. So our business school has been growing for the last several years. Undergraduate involvement has been growing by 10%, probably each year for the last five or six years. Our MBA program, which is an online program, last year was the third fastest growing online MBA program in the nation. We’ve gone from zero students up to 1,200.
I see it as we’re growing our own. We’ve got students from this region coming here, getting their degree and then they go back home to Bladen County, they go back to Columbus, they go back to Richmond here in the area, and they help to grow.
Southeastern North Carolina needs more health care resources. What is UNC Pembroke doing to help?
About 10 years ago we started a department of nursing. And that department has enjoyed great growth over the years. Mary Ann Elliott, a former trustee at the university, gave us a $6 million gift earlier this year, and we now have the McKenzie-Elliott School of Nursing within our College of Health Sciences. This year, we admitted more students to our School of Nursing than we have ever done before.
Unfortunately, we turned away incredibly qualified students, because to maintain accreditation for that school, we have to maintain a student-faculty ratio of about 10 to 1. It’s tough to meet that standard. Those faculty are in high demand. So we’ve had a challenge of attracting enough qualified faculty here, which is why we could only accept so many students this year.
Our nursing students mostly come from this region. And so they come to us, we educate them, and 80%-plus end up staying in this region. And if you talk to local hospitals, they will tell you that they will take every nurse that we send them. So the demand for nursing is there.
What about other health care staffing needs in the region?
We partnered with the Sheps Center for Health Sciences Research at UNC-Chapel Hill to do a survey asking which of the needs UNC Pembroke could address. Long story short, the study shows that the workforce needs in southeast North Carolina are astronomical. Physician assistants, occupational therapists, physical therapists – all of those needs. And obviously physicians.
That need didn’t just start yesterday or last year. It’s been here for decades. And so what we are doing is not working. So we need to do something different. The Sheps Center validated that by saying UNC Pembroke needs to supply those workforce needs and we need to grow our own. You bring them here, you educate them, you serve as a point of access for them.
The North Carolina General Assembly has been at a budget impasse for years. How would UNC Pembroke benefit from a new state budget?
We’re still under a 2018 budget. And you talk about trying to stretch a nickel and make it into a dime – I think we’ve done a good job of that. In the budget as it’s presented now, there’s a $91 million allied health and science building. To give you some perspective, the School of Business building is $38 million. Imagine the impact the School of Business is going to have on southeast North Carolina. Now imagine if you have a STEM-related building there, what it’s going to do for this region. It’s transformational.
Also in that budget is more money than we’ve seen ever in the history of this university for renovation. Some of our buildings are in need of a new roof, need HVAC systems. We have a lot of buildings that for years, decades, we have not gotten to maintain.
A voluntary survey conducted by UNCP showed about 88% of faculty, staff and students had received the COVID vaccine. How can the university increase awareness as Robeson County has the lowest vaccination rate in the state?
There’s so much misinformation. I talked to one group, and they brought up ivermectin, a medicine that treats parasitic diseases and is often used for animals. So you’re telling me that people won’t take a COVID shot that’s been produced by a laboratory in the most sterile conditions. You’re concerned about that, but you will go to a feed store and buy a medicine intended for horses and cows. I said I don’t understand that.
So I think it’s a matter of education.
UNC Pembroke is the most diverse regional university in the South, according to U.S. News & World Report. What are some of the benefits and challenges of leading such a diverse campus?
You walk out on my campus when classes are changing and look around, and you will see what America will look like in about 10 years. My approach is: We’re diverse; now how do we live together? How do we get people to respect one another? How do we make sure that every person on this campus feels included, whether you’re Black, Indian, Latino, white? How do we make you feel that you’re important on this campus?
And that’s what the world is going to have to grapple with, our country is going to have to grapple with. UNC Pembroke actually has an incredible opportunity to do it right and to be an experiment, and maybe others can follow our model.
We formed an inclusion and diversity council recently. How do we become inclusive? We encourage people to talk. It’s hard to hate someone that you know, and it’s easy to hate someone if they’re just a face, just a number.
An on-campus march in June 2020 to protest police brutality highlighted tensions between Black members of the community and Native Americans. Were the events that unfolded a long time coming?
I think it was symbolic and part of what was going on in the whole nation. I’m from this community; I grew up 2 miles down the road. I am a member of the Lumbee tribe, as is my wife. I know the tensions that exist in Robeson County. It is a tri-racial county, with Native Americans, whites and Blacks. Those tensions go back hundreds of years, at least 100 years. But I don’t think it’s much different than a lot of other places.