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Robin Cummings: The New ‘Mayor’ at UNC Pembroke

As a Lumbee living in NC, Robin Cummings grew up in the shadow of the state’s historically American Indian university, now he's the chancellor there.
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As a Lumbee Indian living in Robeson County, North Carolina, Robin Cummings grew up in the shadow of the state’s historically American Indian university.

Cummings’ childhood home was a 25-acre farm located about three miles from what is now the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, a school that began in 1887 as an institution to train Native teachers. Built specifically for the county’s large Lumbee population, the Croatan Normal School admitted only Native students for its first 60 years.

By the time Cummings was passing the campus every day in a school bus bound for the local elementary school, the name had been changed to Pembroke State College, and the school had opened its doors to non-Native students. When Cummings was 10, the college became Pembroke State University, and three years later it was incorporated into the University of North Carolina system.

“I knew it was a special place for education,” said Cummings, now 59. “I had been in the library and I recognized who the professors were.”

Courtesy of University of North Carolina at Pembroke

The oldest building on campus, known as Old Main, is shown at night.

Still, when Cummings was on the cusp of college himself, he looked elsewhere, finally attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology. He went on to Duke University School of Medicine and a career as a cardiothoracic surgeon.

Cummings was serving as deputy secretary for health services at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services when he was elected this year as chancellor of UNC Pembroke. When he took over the post in July, he returned to a campus he still credits for much of his career success.

“I really believe that Pembroke influenced my life the most, more than either college I went to,” he said. “I had culture shock when I went to college with 21,000 students, but I wouldn’t have tried it if I hadn’t been exposed to Pembroke when I was growing up.”

From his office on the rural, 153-acre campus, Cummings views the university the way he would a small city, he said. As chancellor, he is the top executive, in charge of overseeing all university operations.

“I compare it to being mayor of a city,” he said. “My duty here is to make the university run smoothly with the ultimate goal being to produce a quality product—well-trained, mature students four years after they join us.”

The third Native elected to the post of chancellor, Cummings is tasked with moving the university into the future while honoring its 128-year legacy in a county that is still predominantly Lumbee.

Courtesy of University of North Carolina at Pembroke

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An arrowhead commemorating UNC Pembroke’s legacy as an American Indian school stands outside the oldest building on campus.

Although it began as an American Indian school, UNC Pembroke is now billed as one of the most diverse campuses in the Southeast. The university this fall welcomed its largest incoming freshman class in history, and the campus is home to nearly 6,500 students from 26 states and 15 countries.

Yet only about 15 percent of its student population is Native—a statistic Cummings wants to change.

“We are the only four-year institution in the U.S. established by American Indians for American Indians,” he said. “As chancellor, I represent the entire university, but I was also given the mandate to emphasize and grow the Native culture.”

One of Cummings’ goals is to expand the university’s Southeast American Indian Studies program. He also wants to encourage members of his own tribe to make Pembroke their college of choice.

“We lose a lot of our local students,” he said. “Our best and brightest students continue to look outside Pembroke, but the focal point of our community is a university. Kids grow up and see this university that was started for us. I want to build on that.”

It’s a goal shared by Michael Holmes, a member of the Lumbee Tribe who retired in 2005 as a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. Holmes, now a member of UNC Pembroke’s Board of Trustees, graduated from Pembroke State College in 1972.

Holmes grew up in Robeson County, but as a first-generation college graduate, he was “shooting in the dark” when he got to campus, he said.

“I was probably the least prepared person going into the university,” he said. “I knew when to show up for class, but that was about it.”

Holmes finished with a bachelor’s degree in math and a minor in biology. He joined the Navy and flew an antisubmarine aircraft for 32 years, but still fondly remembers his college years.

“When I look back, I had a couple of great professors who taught me some valuable lessons,” he said. “Attention to detail. Study hard. Apply yourself. Make every moment count.”

Those are the same lessons Cummings hopes all UNC Pembroke students pick up.

“I like to make the statement that no matter where you want to land, you can get there from here,” he said.