Coming Full Circle: Carolina Conversations with UNC-Pembroke Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings

By Corbie Hill

“To me, this job is personal,” says Robin Cummings.

“It’s not about money,” he continues. “It’s not about prestige.”

The UNC-Pembroke chancellor sits in his fourth-floor office overlooking campus. In his 62 years he has been a heart surgeon and a Medicaid administrator – even on their own, these two careers represent a high level of achievement. Yet Cummings’ impressive arc continues with his UNCP chancellorship – a relatively recent career move that he approaches with trademark humility and humor.

“Once you’ve held a heart in your hand and you’ve operated on a person, if your ego is not fulfilled at that point, then you really have a problem,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.

Between fall break and Hurricane Michael (which blew through North Carolina the day before our interview), UNCP is quiet, a dormant engine awaiting ignition. New buildings contrast with old structures that Cummings knew as a child, when the school bus would wend through campus en route from the farm where he was raised to Pembroke Elementary. Cummings was a bright student, valedictorian of his high school class, and his education at UNC-Chapel Hill and then Duke prepared him for a career in heart surgery. He loved this career, but a medical issue in 2004 cut his operating days short. From there, he pivoted to medical administration, eventually overseeing Medicaid statewide. Then, in 2015, he became chancellor of the university he had known since childhood.

And now he has a bold vision. He thinks UNCP could be the next East Carolina University.

The two schools could have similar arcs, Cummings says. Until the ‘70s, ECU was a small regional college of a few thousand students. ECU became a university in 1967 and then a member of the UNC system in 1972, all under chancellor and president Leo Jenkins’ leadership. And then the school grew, and kept growing. Today it enrolls about 30,000 students; Today there is a medical school and a dental school; Today there is a high-speed four-lane highway connecting Greenville to Raleigh. When the university grew, so did the city of Greenville – and so did the rest of eastern North Carolina.

Cummings, UNCP’s chancellor, thinks his humble school of 7,000 (which is nestled in a town less than half that size) can be the same engine for positive change in southeast North Carolina. All the pieces are already in place: Robeson County is bisected by two interstates; it has a university, a community college and a 450-bed hospital. The county should be an economic powerhouse, Cummings says, and he believes UNCP could be the essential catalyst, just like ECU was for its region.

“There’s still a lot of poor counties in eastern North Carolina, but there are fewer of them and fewer poor cities because East Carolina has had an impact,” Cummings says. “I think people are buying into the idea that UNC-Pembroke could be an engine, could be a driver, could be a tool that could have a lot of positive impact in this area.”

As someone who grew up in the area, Cummings is personally invested in making this happen.

The son of a Methodist minister, second-youngest of nine children, Cummings grew up on a small farm three miles from UNCP. At the time, ministers were expected to work a job during the week on top of their ministry, but Cummings’ father went against the grain. He decided that he would be a minister full-time, so he found a way to make that work.

UNCP was a strong presence in Cummings’ early life, from passing it daily on the bus to having student-teachers from the college come to his school. Many of these students were Caucasian, which was different for Cummings, as most of his peers at school were, like him, American Indians. As he got older, he kept coming to the university, though his reasons changed. As a teenager, Cummings would go to Mary Livermore Library to study, and often his future wife, Pinehurst realtor Rebecca Godwin Cummings, would be studying on the same evenings.

On the advice of his high school guidance counselor, Cummings applied to UNC-Chapel Hill. “We never talked about UNC-Pembroke, which I think was Pembroke State University at the time,” says Cummings. He was accepted, but almost could not afford to go. In the 11th hour a scholarship materialized, so he left Pembroke for Chapel Hill.

“It was the first time I had ever been away from home,” Cummings says. Yet he felt at ease immediately. The towering dorm buildings, the crowds of students – none of that bothered him. Having grown up a scant three miles from a university, even a small one, had made Cummings completely at ease in that setting. “It didn’t frighten me like I think it did some other kids who were coming from small towns,” he says. “So I just fit right in and felt comfortable.” He may hold degrees from both Carolina and Duke, but Cummings maintains that UNCP influenced him the most. It gave him the courage to pursue his education.

After UNC, Cummings started at Duke University School of Medicine. Initially he thought he wanted to be a pediatrician, but a rotation through surgery changed his mind. “The first time I looked into a chest and saw that heart beating and I saw who I thought was the coolest guy in the whole world operating on it, I thought ‘That’s what I want to be!’” Cummings says.

“When I saw it, it was like ‘Can I get in there? Can I be a part of that?’ I didn’t see the blood. I just saw this organ beating and the function of it and the beauty of it and how this person, through his knowledge, could do something with it,” Cummings says. “You could make that kind of a difference in someone’s life, to go from the point of death to having life.”

After nine years of schooling, Cummings considered his options: he could go to Texas, to Ohio, to California, but he wanted to come home and help Robeson County. So he took a position at Moore Regional Hospital (now FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital) and began his busy career. “When you’re a surgeon, you get up in the morning, you go, you do your thing, you come home at 10:00 at night and you go to bed; you get up in the morning, you go and do your thing – that was my life, pretty much seven days a week,” Cummings says.

He loved surgery. In the operating room, problems are solved on the fly; Actions are precise, decisions are made in seconds. You hold out your hand, somebody puts the proper tool in it. Cummings took pride in his work. Only the best tools, only the best people and only his best efforts were good enough. The stakes were too high to give any less.

“I have a friend, Kelvin Sampson, who’s a basketball coach, and he says ‘I remember every loss I’ve had,’” Cummings says soberly. “’I’ve had a lot more wins, but every single loss.’”

Cummings had a good record, he says, and he’s proud that he didn’t lose many patients. Still, he remembers every single one. It’s traumatic to lose a patient, Cummings says, and it’s not something you get over. He had to learn how to let himself grieve, but then move on; he had to be human, but he also had to be a surgeon. As a surgeon, he could do good, and regular reminders approached him on Moore County streets when people – men and women – would walk up, unbuttoning their shirts. See this, they would say, see this scar? You gave me this scar. You operated on me 20 years ago, and I’m still here. You operated on my mother, and she lived another 10 years. Thank you.

Cummings had no intention of quitting, but circumstances left him no choice. In 2004, he had an acoustic neuroma – an inner ear tumor that can cause dizziness, unsteadiness and hearing loss – removed. Even though surgery went well, he realized that he was no longer at 110 percent, and he could not justify returning to heart surgery – with each operation, there was simply too much on the line for him to return in anything less than peak condition. So Cummings, who was in his early 40s at the time, retired from surgery. And then his life shifted to an unexpected gear.

“As a surgeon, the last thing you can think of yourself is being an administrator – as a surgeon, you got a problem, I’m going to operate,” Cummings says. Yet against his own reservations, he accepted a friend’s invitation to be the medical director of Community Care of the Sandhills. And against his own preconceptions of administrative work, Cummings loved it.

“That got me into healthcare administration,” he says. “It was over seven counties, so there’s a statewide office that oversees that whole system. I was given the opportunity of, ‘Why don’t you come to Raleigh and run this office?’ I did that for six months. Then the person I was working for said, ‘Why don’t you be my deputy secretary for Health and Human Services?’ I did that for two months and then they said, ‘Well, we really need to you to run Medicaid.’ All of the sudden, I found myself taking care of

 1.8 million patients, $14 billion budget, and I’m thinking, ‘How did this happen?’”

After several years in that world Cummings came full circle, and the local kid who grew up three miles from campus became chancellor of UNCP in July of 2015. He’d already made the shift from surgery to medical administration, so the move from that to academia wasn’t all that jarring. And he was able to take the things he’d learned

 in Raleigh back to Pembroke.

“I learned the value of communication. I learned the value of collaboration,” Cummings says. “You’ve gotta have integrity. You can’t sell for anything. The minute you start selling yourself or selling a part of you, you lose.

“I learned how to multitask lots of people coming at you with different agendas, wanting different things,” he continues. “You’ve got to get to the root and always remember I’m here to take care of that patient. When I came here, ultimately it’s about that student. That student is my patient, in a way.”

And if the surgeon in him still sees the individual student as his responsibility, the administrator in him looks at Robeson County as a whole – and southeast North Carolina – and thinks, what can I do? How can this university elevate the region?

“I have seen this county as a child. I experienced it growing up. I experienced it going away and looking at it from a distance,” Cummings says.

He’s seen Robeson and neighboring Hoke, Columbus and Bladen Counties struck by the one-two punch of hurricanes Matthew and Florence in the span of 23 months, with many homes flooded twice and numerous families displaced. Young kids are missing school, families that already had very little are left with even less and the conditions that enabled these catastrophic floods remain. The next hurricane is coming, Cummings says – that much is for sure. He wants his region prepared, and he knows there is a lot of work to be done. But the man who has saved lives through heart surgery, who has overseen Medicaid statewide and who is now the chancellor of his hometown’s university believes solutions are possible. He doesn’t guarantee they’re easy, but he believes that through collaboration and communication that they are possible.

“I have a lot of faith in man’s ingenuity and our ability to figure things out,” Cummings says. “Once we put our minds to something we can figure out ways.”