Project 20/10: Brier Creek turns development eyes to eastern Durham County (#12)
Project 20/10: IBM, Nortel lead decade of RTP big-employer cuts (#10)

Project 20/10: NCCU booms, broadens reach -- and faces conflict with neighbors (#11)

NCCU_sealNorth Carolina Central University celebrated its centennial last year, closing out the aughts with a look back at the history of America's first publicly-supported liberal arts college for African-Americans.

NCCU's been through a number of permutations in its history, starting out as a private institution (the National Religious Training School and Chautauqua) before falling on economic difficulties. State government stepped in in the early 1920s and transformed the school in the North Carolina College for Negroes; regional accreditation, the addition of graduate programs in the arts and sciences, law and other fields, before the school's rechristening as North Carolina Central University in 1969.

Three years later, the state of North Carolina reorganized its universities into a statewide system under a single Board of Governors, though like North Carolina A&T, Elizabeth City State University, and Fayetteville State University, NCCU has retained its identity as an historically black college/university (HBCU).

NCCU's campus between Fayetteville St. and Alston Ave. in south-central Durham sits in the heart of the heart of Durham's historic black middle- and upper-middle-class, nestled in a neighborhood populated by a number of descendants of some of the school's founders. It's a proud part of the City, one which has strong connections to the history of Hayti and "Black Wall Street" in their blood -- literally, in many cases.

For all that pride, this decade stands out as one in which, faced with a state booming in population and in need of more support for higher education, NCCU's seen its mission grow beyond its HBCU roots in ever-widening ways. 

With that growth in mission has come a substantial growth in student population -- and with it, a campus straining at the seams, necessitating new buildings and its first parking decks to handle that growth.

Most controversially of all: an ambitious campus master plan that would, over the coming decades, absorb some of that surrounding neighborhood, an at-times difficult experience for those long-tied to the area's history.

NCCU's rapid growth and its broadening scope rank as the eleventh most-significant story in Durham of the past decade.

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In the late 1990s, the General Assembly pressed the UNC system to present a long-range plan for managing enrollment growth. The system's Board of Governors responded, noting in a series of enrollment planning reports their goal of bringing "focused growth" to a number of the state's seventeen public institutions, including all of the HBCUs as well as UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina University.

Based on those planning reports, the motivation seemed two-fold. Growth in HBCUs might be one reasonable way to reduce disparity between white and black North Carolinians in attainment of bachelors degrees -- a goal the North Carolina Progress Board set for the state to reach in 2010.

Another concern, if a more prosaic one: capacity availability and utilization. After all, for all the lofty marketing imagery common in higher education -- filled with pictures of stately brick walls, lush campus greens, and inviting dining halls -- ultimately the economics of brick-and-mortar universities are all about fitting butts into classroom seats.

The 2000 UNC system enrollment report noted a disparity in demand and supply for those seats. The most nationally-known schools in the system, notably including UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State, East Carolina, and the Greensboro, Charlotte and Wilmington campuses, all faced capacity crunches, needing more space to accomodate even current enrollment demand.

But other institutions in the state had more facilities than they did students. The UNC system's plan: "to minimize the need for new facilities over the next decade by gradually modifying traditional enrollment patterns," particularly by working to give schools like NCCU "aggressive targets in an effort to shift enrollment to institutions with underutilized capacity."

In short: to target more growth, more new programs, more enrollment activity at those institutions, rather than investing hundreds of millions of dollars in physical plant expansions at the capacity-constrained schools.

And NCCU was found by the Board of Governors to have more unused capacity than almost any other school in the state: plant capacity to house an enrollment of over 10,000 students, versus just 5,500 enrolled in the fall of 2000.

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And grow the university did.

From that 5,500 student base, NCCU grew by decade's end to reach an enrollment of about 8,500 -- a staggering change for a school in just ten years, any way you slice it, and enough growth that Central became the fastest-growing college in the UNC system this decade. (It also took steps to move to Division I collegiate athletics.)

But enrollment growth hasn't come without growing pains.

This fall, a substantial number of students had to be housed in west Durham's Millenium Hotel after a record number of freshmen admissions strained existing dorm space. (The Millenium avoided the embarrassing error made by the Hillsborough Rd. Hilton in 2003, when students were relocated there after a toxic mold problem in new dorms -- and told to use the side door so as to, as the Herald-Sun put it, "keep the lobby cleared for more traditional hotel guests," bringing back visions to many of the bad old days in the South.)

And parking has been a struggle in and around the campus, reaching a point of entrepreneurial brilliance at least when one enterprising Central student proposed to City Council this year that he be allowed to start a private towing business to tag-and-drag student cars from residential streets neighboring campus. The Council, adverse to the bad town-and-gown press that's happened in Chapel Hill and elsewhere from aggressive towing, said thanks but no thanks to the idea.

Also on the move: the Holy Cross Catholic Church, one of the first African-American Catholic congregations in North Carolina, set to be relocated from Alston Ave. to a spot on Fayetteville St. right next to the home of NCCU founder Dr. James Shepard. 

The university didn't seem as devoted to preserving the house of Alex Rivera, a pioneering civil-rights era photojournalist and later the first PR director for the campus. Rivera, who had donated the house to Central and said he didn't want to see it renovated or saved, passed away in 2008; the university's proposed demolition was opposed by local preservationists and Durham's historic preservation board, the action of the latter of which Central appealed last year.

The university did take a pause from growth on the later half of this decade, holding at the 8,500 enrollment number.

That move came to give Central time to figure out how to improve internal administrative processes for operations to handle the amount of growth it had already taken. (In one embarrassing move this year, Central found itself overbilling students for a single penny and confusion -- and long lines -- reined as students feared they'd be assessed late fee penalties if tardy with their payment.)

News reports also suggest that Central is struggling to meet two at-times contradictory goals from the state government.

NCCU is, both by its traditional mission and to find recruits to meet its growth target and the state's diversity and equity goals, growing largely among a student base that includes less-wealthy students, first-generation college students, and incoming undergraduates who may have received poor preparation in America's two-class system of secondary education.

All of which has meant Central has had to provide more catch-up and remedial courses -- and has also found itself working to keep graduation and retention rates at the desired levels.

Yet the UNC system has re-focused its own growth goals, looking under Erskine Bowles' leadership to link financial inducements and support given to campuses to their success in student retention and program completion rates.

As the Herald-Sun's Neil Offen noted in an excellent story earlier this fall, NCCU's raised a concern that its population isn't as ready to meet those goals as wealthier, more-prepared students at NC State or UNC might be, and has proposed the system compare like-with-like between campuses as a result.

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Still, more growth is on the way.

Even in light of the changing priorities and performance standards the UNC system is looking to promulgate, Central is still looking at growing by another 50% in the next decade, to a projected 13,000-plus students by 2017.

A new $25 million building to transform NCCU's nursing program into a bona fide, full-line School of Nursing is getting underway at the site of that relocated church; the federal stimulus-supported project is aimed to help meet a statewide and national shortage of nurses by doubling the popular program's enrollment.

A new facility for the School of Business is also planned. Chidley Hall, a residence hall facility closed since the early 2000s and in need of renovations and repair, is planning to get its own investment, part of a plan to improve academic performance by keeping more students in on-campus housing.

And a parking deck is now set to rise from a surface parking lot site on Lawson Street; that location, bordering the neighborhood to the north side of NCCU, will see a significant rise in height (and retail activity, with the deck also housing a new campus bookstore.)

It's a sign of the creeping movement NCCU is having towards its neighbors, and a movement that, with five thousand more students on the way, isn't going anywhere soon.

The neighborhood has long and deep ties with Central, but many of those go back to the days when NCCU was the "hometown" university, founded by members of Durham's business and professional elite to provide the Bull City's black sons and daughters with a virtuous cycle of economic opportunity.

But this latest cycle of growth is coming to meet the needs of the state, not the community -- or so that's the vibe one hears when opponents talk about the school's growth plans. And even if the school remains nominally an HBCU, the school is, by its own description, "striving for a more diverse student body." (Less than a quarter of the student body comes from Durham; most come from outside the Triangle or even the state.)

Nccu_master_plan  All of which has seen tensions rise among neighbors who feel like the school's growth comes at the local community's expense, not in its service.

Opponents -- including omnipresent Fayetteville St. shopping center owners Larry and Denise Hester and their Unity in the Community for Progress organization -- have blasted the campus' expansive growth plans, which took the concrete form of a master plan late in the decade.

Though in the works for some time, newly-appointed chancellor Charlie Nelms came on the scene as the plan was ready for unveiling.

Nelms, himself (as the N&O noted) an Arkansan by birth and arriving at Central from the Indiana University system, unluckily found himself as an outsider bringing the message of NCCU growth -- itself driven by "outsiders" to Durham, be they a more state- and nation-wide student base or the UNC Board of Governors -- to the neighborhood.

And NCCU's leadership had, as the saying goes, made no little plans.

The expansion would take up 136 single-family homes in the blocks bordering the campus, which would provide land for expansion.

Some residents and UCP have called for the growth to take place in conjunction with Fayette Place, the redevelopment of public housing off Fayetteville St. near NC 147 to become student rental apartments targeting NCCU.

Others have pointed to the inhospitable NC 55/Alston Ave. corridor as a better location for growth.

But all signs point to NCCU continuing down its master plan for growth, accumulating much of its surroundings and preparing for a student population that will come to rival Duke's in size.

This growth -- started during the 2000s, and maturing in the 2010s -- will not only reshape the neighborhood around Central, to the consternation of many of its neighbors.

It'll also reshape Durham, expanding its student population, and just maybe, providing an impetus for more commercial, entertainment, dining and recreation options around the campus.

In total, Durham will end the 2010s with a total student population rivaling that of Chapel Hill, albeit it part of a much larger total population base.

That makes for a massive reshaping of a big part of the Bull City -- and a key reason why this ranks eleventh in our rundown of the decade's biggest stories.

Comments

ACW

Excellent post. Chancellor Nelms took his position after my first semester at Central, and the amount of positive change - both cosmetic and procedural - has been remarkable. Students I knew my first year who transferred or graduated have returned for visits and claimed not to have recognized campus.
While the enrollment may be 'holding steady' at 8,500 or so, readers should bear in mind that this plateau comes at a time when many schools in the UNC system, NCCU included, have been facing budget cutbacks and/or hiring freezes. Classes are extremely full, and NCCU has implemented changes to better advise students to prevent unnecessary activity during drop/add week and keep everyone on track.
The only other comment I'll make is related to yours: "Less than a quarter of the student body comes from Durham; most come from outside the Triangle or even the state." My husband and I relocated to Durham to attend Central, and we intend to stay after graduating. While we're not *from* Durham, the base numbers are misleading; we have ties to the city as many other students do. I'd be willing to bet that many of the 75% enrolled from out-of-town could claim that NCCU is a relative's alma mater, or that they have family members who live here. Even if they don't, remaining here after getting their degrees would mean they are not transient, as could be implied by the numbers provided.

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