Visiting Professor Charles Becton ’69 was preparing fall lectures for his Rhetoric and Advocacy class when he got a phone call, in late July, from University of North Carolina President Tom Ross, who made him an unexpected offer: To become the interim chancellor of North Carolina Central University.
“I had never thought about being chancellor of a university and I don’t think I would have thought of that in another hundred years,” says Becton, who was enjoying teaching law in his semi-retirement following a distinguished career as a litigator, law firm partner, and jurist on the North Carolina Court of Appeals. But it was his rich professional background that led Ross to ask him to succeed NCCU’s retiring chancellor, Charlie Nelms, until a permanent replacement was found.
“Judge Charles Becton is known and respected throughout the Durham community and the state of North Carolina for his sound judgment and ability to get things done, so I’m confident that NCCU won’t lose any momentum as the search for a permanent chancellor gets under way,” Ross said in a statement. “I am grateful that Judge Becton has accepted this important assignment, and I know that the campus will be in very capable hands.”
After talking the offer over, at length, with his wife, Brenda ’74, Becton accepted, exchanging — for now — his Duke Law classroom for the top job at a research university with a diverse student body of more than 8,600. He expects to remain in the position for approximately one year.
Becton jokes that his plan was to “be a sponge” and soak up information about the institution when he took office on Aug. 6. Instead, he found himself “drinking from a firehose” as he met faculty, familiarized himself with departments, and welcomed a larger-than-expected class of freshmen. He was grateful, he says, to have Nelms as an on-site adviser for his first month, as well as a “wonderful” leadership team and support staff.
“I don’t try to micromanage. My job was to find people who knew what they were doing and allow them to do what they do best,” he says. He was able to assure them that he fully supports the direction and strategic priorities of the university. “I was not coming in trying to reinvent a wheel that was rolling fine, or to change the course of a ship that was sailing smoothly and going to new and exhilarating ports. We have a STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — program that is attracting federal grants and I’m very pleased with that effort. And our institutional development program is moving forward.”
Engaging (or re-engaging) alumni with their alma mater is one of Becton’s key priorities as chancellor. “I am interested in reaching people who had a good experience in college but who simply haven’t been contacted. We have to tell them about all the great things happening on campus that they don’t know about,” he says. He is well aware of the “tough” funding realities facing all public universities, including the 17 in the University of North Carolina system.
“We have to be more vigilant in our efforts to form public and private partnerships,” says Becton, a past president of the North Carolina Bar Association. A new state funding model tied to performance (retention and graduation of students within specified periods of time) means that keeping student retention and graduation rates on an upward trajectory is ever more important, he added, pointing out that more than 30 percent of NCCU students work and more than 80 percent require some form of financial assistance.
“It can be difficult to maintain good grades if you have to work, and it can hurt with retention because you’ve got to schedule classes around your work schedule,” Becton points out. “You may not be able to take a course this semester that you’ll need as a prerequisite for the next semester. You keep falling behind.
“Our administrators agree that we have to do a better job of guiding students with their course selections. Counselors and advisers have to tell a student, ‘You absolutely need this class to take the one you want next semester.’ Our goal is to make sure that students are ready to graduate in four to five years, and our goal is to graduate them with competitive credentials so they can compete in the global marketplace.”
Becton admits one downside to his leadership position: “I really miss teaching. I miss the students and I love the interaction.” That’s why, he says, he is looking forward in the spring semester to lecturing NCCU law students on trial skills and offering freshmen a session on professionalism. “Of course,” he points out, “I have 1,400 freshmen.” But he’s having fun in the top job.
“I enjoy the people and the sense I have that I can do some good,” he says. “I’ve always had a fairly good sense of who I am and my place in the grand scheme of things in this universe and where I fit in. So I was confident I would work hard enough to make this work. So I’m very pleased that not only am I having fun, but I think I’m in a position to make a difference.
“Law was a vehicle through which I sought to serve the public, and I find my role as chancellor is no different. It is to mold the minds of young people and motivate the faculty and staff to do the same.”