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Mickey L. Burnim Biography

Began Academic Career as Economist, Took Over Top Spot at ECSU, Kept Doors Open to Students


Educator, university administrator

When Dr. Mickey L. Burnim was appointed chancellor of North Carolina's Elizabeth City State University, the 105-year-old campus was struggling with auditing problems, slipping enrollment, and an aging infrastructure. Burnim immediately set about turning the historically black university around. He hired three new vice chancellors who helped him balance the books, boost enrollment, launch the school's first graduate programs, and secure funding for new buildings and much needed renovations. Burnim accomplished his goals thanks to hard work, determination, and years of watching other university heads. "I have always tried to learn from the experiences of others," Burnim told Black Issues in Higher Education. "…I have learned by observing individual leaders." He learned well, and Elizabeth City State University and its thousands of students will reap the rewards for years to come. He summed up his philosophy in a promise, quoted by The Virginian Pilot, to "…treat all of our students like the precious resources with unlimited potential which they are."

Began Academic Career as Economist

Born Michael L. Burnim on January 19, 1949, Burnim was raised by his parents Ruby and A. S. Burnim in the tiny central Texas town of Teague. After graduating from high school he attended the University of North Texas in Denton. He distinguished himself as both an honors student and a campus leader. He was the first African-American student at North Texas to be named to the national Who's Who listing. He also became the first African American to serve on the school's student senate and in 1969 he was elected vice president of the organization. In 1970 he earned his bachelor's degree in economics and, two years later, his master's degree. Burnim next traveled to Wisconsin, where he received a doctorate in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1977. His focus of study was public finance and labor economics.

Ph.D. in hand, Burnim began an academic career that would swing between scholarship and administration. From 1976 to 1982 he taught economics as an assistant professor at Florida State University. He then moved to the University of North Carolina (UNC). One of the most respected university systems in the country, UNC is also one of the largest. As the assistant vice president for academic affairs in the general administration office of the 16-campus system, Burnim was in a prime position to move up the ladder of higher education administration. However, he didn't abandon his academic pursuits, and from 1983 to 1986 Burnim also held assistant and associate professorships in the economics department of the university's Chapel Hill campus. In 1986 Burnim moved over to North Carolina Central University in Durham, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), and became vice-chancellor for academic affairs. In 1990 he was named a provost of the school.

Took Over Top Spot at ECSU

In 1995 the chancellor of Elizabeth City State University (ECSU), another HBCU within the University of North Carolina system, resigned suddenly. Burnim was tapped to serve as interim chancellor and provost until a full-time replacement could be found. The UNC board of governors established a search committee and soon had a pool of 61 candidates. Of those, five were interviewed, two made it to the final round, and one of those was Burnim. Burnim's candidacy was touted by then-UNC president C. D. Spengler, who was quoted by The Virginian Pilot as saying, "I firmly believe that Mickey Burnim is the right person to lead Elizabeth City State University into the next century." He continued, "His broad experience and dedicated commitment to scholarship and public service will be forceful and effective for ECSU and the northeastern region of our state."

Burnim had a decided edge. In the year that he had served as interim chancellor his determination and diplomacy had impressed administrators, faculty, and Elizabeth City citizens and community leaders. The previous chancellor had often had a contentious, racially-tinged relationship with the latter. The board of governors agreed with Spengler, unanimously approving Burnim's appointment. According to the university's online transcripts of the meeting, Burnim told the board, "I pledge that I will do my very best to lead the university along a path of continuous progress in providing quality education for its students and support for the ecologically sensitive economic development of Northeastern North Carolina." He then acknowledged, "You are well aware that the university has some problems and challenges. I prefer to view them as opportunities and we will continue our aggressive pursuit of qualitative improvements in management areas as well as academic areas."

On July 1, 1996, Burnim became the third chancellor and eighth CEO of ECSU. His name plaque was barely tacked to his office door when he began to tackle the worst of the university's problems—a 19-year streak of irregular financial audits. "It is obvious that sound financial footing is crucial," Burnim told Black Issues in Higher Education. "My first hire was a vice chancellor for financial affairs." Burnim brought his economic background to the table and, along with the new financial chancellor, worked closely with the state auditor to resolve the problem. They did so in under a year. In 1997 the school received its first clean audit in two decades. "The commitment to quality and individual leadership of Chancellor Dr. Mickey L. Burnim, as well as the hard work of the financial staff of the university, cannot be acknowledged enough," the state auditor was quoted in The Virginian Pilot. In the same article Burnim was characteristically modest. "We've smiled and congratulated ourselves…but there are no big celebrations. We've got more to do."

Another problem Burnim faced when he became chancellor was a pattern of dwindling enrollment that had begun in 1993. As state and federal support depends on enrollment figures, this posed a serious threat to the future of the school. Burnim did not rely solely on increased recruitment efforts to solve the school's enrollment woes; he attacked the problem on many levels. Even before he assumed the chancellorship he had vowed to focus on educational standards. According to The Virginian Pilot, during a 1996 trustees meeting Burnim decried the "large number of teacher absences" and "poorly prepared syllabi." During his inauguration speech the paper quoted him as saying, "The emphasis for faculty and staff will be quality education." He also promised a "staff assessment process" to "see how well we're doing as teachers and administrators."

At a Glance …

Born on January 19, 1949, in Teague, TX; married LaVera Levels; children: Cinnamon, Adrian. Education: North Texas State University, BA in economics, 1970, MA in economics, 1972; University of Wisconsin-Madison, PhD in economics, 1977.

Career: Florida State University, assistant professor, 1976-82; University of North Carolina, General Administration, assistant vice president for academic affairs, 1982-86; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, adjunct assistant professor, 1983-85, adjunct associate professor, 1985-86; North Carolina Central University, Durham, vice chancellor of academic affairs, 1986-95, provost and vice chancellor, 1990-95; Elizabeth City State University, NC, provost, 1995-96, chancellor, 1996–.

Selected memberships: Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), chairman, board of directors; Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges, delegate; Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, board member; The Salvation Army, board member; Wachovia Advisory Board, member.

Awards: Brookings Institute, Brookings Economic Policy Fellow, 1980-81.

Addresses: Office—Elizabeth City State University, 1704 Weeksville Rd, Elizabeth City, NC, 27909.

Burnim also reached out to more students by implementing additional baccalaureate programs in social work and communications studies. He also helped forge a joint pharmacy degree program with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A new degree program in marine environmental science was augmented with remote sensing technology that allowed researchers at the school to monitor conditions off the nearby Atlantic coast. In addition Burnim was key in launching ECSU's first three master's programs in elementary education, biology, and mathematics. He was also instrumental in the founding of the school's first two endowed professorships, increasing the university's standing in the world of academia. Other moves to improve enrollment included the construction of new facilities, including a state-of-the-art music and arts building, dormitories, and a student center. He also secured approval for a $46 million campus facelift, including tree-lined walkways, fountains, and parking. By 2004 Burnim's efforts had paid off when ECSU broke its enrollment record for the second year in a row with nearly 2,500 students, a six percent increase over the previous year. His goal, set by the UNC board, was 3,000 students by 2008.

Kept Doors Open to Students

The new students stepping onto ECSU's campus found Burnim's door wide open. "My office will always be open," he told The Virginian Pilot. "I encourage visitors who have something to say to come in and talk. That doesn't mean they won't ever have to wait a few minutes, but they'll get in." Students could also catch Burnim at football games. For that matter, Burnim informed campus administrators, faculty, and Elizabeth City residents that they could always find him at football games, particularly if his son Adrian—a former ECSU student and varsity player at the University of Virginia—was playing. His enthusiasm for the sport prompted him to work with the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) to develop a popular tournament in the nearby town of Rocky Mount, the Down East Viking Football Classic. Born in 1998, the game has featured the ECSU Vikings against other teams from the CIAA, an athletic conference consisting of twelve historically African-American institutions of higher education. As the fifth annual game approached Burnim told the Daily Advance, "It is wonderful.…We had a lot of uncertainty at the beginning. The sponsorship, would people show up. But seeing how everyone has stepped up—all of those pieces were critical in the development to this point." In 2004 Burnim took a more active role in the CIAA when he was appointed chairman of its board of directors.

As the 2004 academic year dawned, Burnim continued to meet the challenges of running a university head on. He faced state and federal budget cuts, ongoing faculty assessments, recruitment goals, and fundraising campaigns, as well as the daily rigors of managing a university campus that plays home to thousands of employees, faculty, and students. He continued to happily and successfully face those challenges, fueled by a commitment he made the day he became chancellor. "This is all about quality education," The Virginian Pilot quoted him. "Quality education from top to bottom for quality students. They'll get it. That's my job."



Black Issues in Higher Education, April 3, 1997.

Ebony, February 2004.

Virginian Pilot, June 15, 1996; October 13, 1996; December 18, 1997; June 13, 1999.


"Board of Governors Meeting, June 14, 1996," University of North Carolina, www.ga.unc.edu/BOG/minutes/1996/1996_0603.html (September 28, 2004).

Hubbard, David, "Buildup for Down East Viking Football Classic Begins," CIAA, www.theciaa.com/03-04/features/ecsuf0618.htm (September 28, 2004).

"Chancellor's Biographical Sketch," Elizabeth City State University, www.ecsu.edu/fs/chancellorsbio.cfm (September 28, 2004).

—Candace LaBalle

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