April 15, 2014
Whenever the broad regional influence of East Carolina University is talked about in this part of the state, it is understood that the topic is synonymous with the name Leo. W. Jenkins. Indeed, when the University of North Carolina Board of Governors gave its highest award to ECU’s sixth president last week, it came as no surprise to anyone east of Interstate 95.
The posthumous bestowing of the University Award upon Jenkins marks a historic statewide acknowledgement of his dedication to ensuring that ECU’s greatest potential would be realized. A story in Saturday’s Daily Reflector detailed the doubt, skepticism and obstacles thrown from powerful corners of political and university leadership, all of which were determinedly overcome by Jenkins’ incredible and infectious vision.
Jenkins’ legacy began when he was named dean of East Carolina College in 1947. He was named vice president in 1955 and then president in 1960. From there, he led East Carolina from “college” to “university” status, racially integrated the campus without a court order while organizing the monumental struggle to establish a medical school.
Political and university leaders saw the prospect of a medical school at ECU as a threat to the financial and political support systems that were in place for their own institutions. But Jenkins and those he rallied to the cause had a concept for a medical school whose mission could not be defeated — to increase the numbers of primary care physicians in rural and underserved areas of the state.
Newspapers editorialized against Jenkins and the vision he was pushing for ECU. Government leaders urged him to be patient and wait until the time was right to grow and expand the school’s mission, but Jenkins did not bend under the weight of those forces. Now, more than four decades later, those who live and work in this region are better off for his perseverance.
Reflecting upon the foresight and success demonstrated by Jenkins during one of the most tumultuous periods of the 20th century reveals his brilliance in tapping into that spirit of rebellion and higher purpose to win support for a broader mission. While many college and university leaders were focused on maintaining the status quo during campus protests over issues like the Vietnam War and integration, Jenkins was looking forward.
His friend and former editor of this newspaper, David Whichard, summed up Jenkins’ legacy nicely in Saturday’s story.
“He saw the potential in eastern North Carolina and (ECU),” Whichard said. “Not what we could build today, but what comes tomorrow.”