Appalachian Perspective: Martin Lancaster

Hosted by Appalachian State University's Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, Appalachian Perspective cable television program has featured prominent and interesting North Carolinians, the university's leading academic and public service programs, and other topics of statewide interest. Episodes air across the state on cable operators' community access channels. The 30-minute program is a production of the university's Office of University Communications.

A leader in public service, the honorable Martin Lancaster has led a long and distinguished career which encompasses his early years in the United States Army and Navy, a total of 16 years serving in both the U.S. and North Carolina Houses of Representatives, the president of the North Carolina Community College System, and now an attorney at Smith Anderson in Raleigh. He has received a multitude of awards recognizing his service, including the appointment of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.


KP: A leader in public service, the honorable Martin Lancaster has led a long and distinguished career which encompasses early years in the United States Army and Navy, a total of 16 years serving in both the U.S. and North Carolina Houses of Representatives, the president of the North Carolina Community College system, and now an attorney at Smith Anderson in Raleigh. He has received a multitude of awards recognizing his service including the appointment of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of British Empire by her majesty, Queen Elizabeth. We'll meet this intriguing public figure coming up on Appalachian Perspective.

KP: Welcome to Appalachian Perspective. My guest today is North Carolinian Martin Lancaster, who among his many credits, I am proud to say, is a member of the Appalachian State University Board of Trustees. Welcome Martin. It's great to have you here.

ML: Thank you. Always good to be on campus.

KP: Before we get into all the service and things you've done, tell us about Martin Lancaster the man. Where is your hometown? A little bit about your family?

ML: Well I guess I am made by growing up on a tobacco farm in eastern North Carolina where hard work was infiltrated in me by a very hard working farmer father. So I have always worked hard, but I also made many a vow between two tobacco rows that I would study hard so that I didn't have to do that the rest of my life. And so from that tobacco field I went to Chapel Hill for undergraduate and law school and then went in the Navy as a Navy JAG. The television show that was on was modeled after my service in JAG, and that's a joke.

(Both laugh)

KP: I was thinking I hadn't heard that.

ML: The show was a joke. But anyhow, I came back then and practiced law in my hometown of Goldsboro until I went to congress. Eight of those years in private practice I was also in the state legislature. After 17 years, I was elected to congress and served there for eight years. And as a member of congress I was on the armed services committee and was asked to represent the House to the chemical weapons treaty talks in Geneva for six years. And so after I was defeated for Congress in 1994, President Clinton had not been able to get the treaty ratified. It had been negotiated and signed by President Bush the first. But our Senator, Senator Helms, did not like any arms control and so he had held up the treaty for several years. So President Clinton said, "Would you come on the White House staff and help me get this treaty through?" So I did. Senator Helms and I had a wonderful relationship and as soon as I was appointed I went to see Senator Helms and told him that I knew that he opposed arms control treaties and that he had been very opposed to this particular treaty, but was there some way we could get the treaty through because it enjoyed strong support in the Senate and strong support in the American public. He said "Well, since it's you, yeah I will step aside and I will let Senator Dick Lugar (who was the number two person on foreign relations)...I will let Dick handle the treaty in committee. I'll speak against it and vote against it. He can handle it on the floor. I'll speak against it and vote against it but I won't hold it up." And so very quickly the treaty was ratified. I had wanted to stay in Washington, and the President was accommodating in doing that because I had a junior and senior in high school. They had gone to school in northern Virginia schools, George Mason High School, and they didn't want to go home their last two year. I then became assistant secretary of the Army. I have a career in the Navy and, in fact, retired as a naval reservist as a captain in the Navy. So it was sort of unusual for a Navy guy to be assistant secretary of the Army. I was head of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It was a wonderful job, fascinating work that the corps of engineers does worldwide. It involved a lot of travel, both domestic and foreign. Then I was called to ask if I would be interested in the community college presidency. I ended up being one of three finalists. A wonderful friend of mine, Dr. Bob Greene who had been president of Forsyth Tech, in the interview said "Mr. Lancaster, what makes you think you can be president of the community college system when you've never worked a day in community colleges?" I said, "Well first of all, my wife has taught her whole career in community colleges, except for the two years she was getting her Master's at App State and teaching in high school at Rutherford County." I said, "I know community colleges and I've always been a supporter. The real reason I'm the person you should hire is being a president of a system is not about technical knowledge of community colleges. I can hire vice presidents and associate vice presidents and other experts in community college. What you need is a president. Someone who can be an advocate, who can have vision, who can provide motivation and leadership to the system. We'll let other people handle the technical aspects." I would like to think that I, pretty quickly, learned the technical aspects too. It must have been the right answer because they hired me and I had a wonderful 11 year tenure until I retired 3 years ago almost now. At that point I went to work with Smith Anderson Law Firm in Raleigh. I've had a wonderful, wonderful experience in life and I have been truly blessed.

KP: Well Martin, certainly your service as community college president for all those 11 years is the one thing I hear most about you. You transformed it, you've done so much for that. It's grown a lot since you left because of the economy and all the things we've had. What do you see now that we can do from a university system in a better relationship to show the support for the community colleges?

ML: Well I think part of that transformation and part of the pathway for the future began right here at Appalachian State with the Appalachian Learning Allowance, an allowance between App State and the 10 community colleges in the service area of this University. This is where the first real collaboration between universities and community colleges took place. And that is the future of community colleges and universities. With the high cost of higher education now, many families are turning to the community college system for two years of college work before they transfer to a four year institution. And as I said, that really started here, didn't start here but that's where it gained impotence. And I think that's going to be the future. Secondly, the community college system is preparing knowledge workers, making people who will never have a four year degree, proficient in a technical skill that will help North Carolina business and industry compete worldwide. We have taken thousands of textile tobacco workers and others whose jobs have been made redundant by offshoring or by simply leaving North Carolina to go to Southeast Asia or the Caribbean. And those people are 43 years old or 57 years old and can't retire. But we have demonstrated in the community college system that a retired textile worker can very quickly become a current biotechnology worker. That's going to be the future of community colleges in addition to the college transfer aspect, making knowledge workers out of previously low-skilled, low-paid workers.

KP: The program that I attended last fall when you were recognized by the governor for your service to all North Carolina. The program had a quote in there and it said that you felt that you're work as president of the community college system had brought you more satisfaction, the greatest satisfaction, and I certainly agree with that. And thank you for that wonderful leadership. What do you see now as the greatest challenges for all of us in higher education, whether a university system or community college system?

ML: Well I think affordability. We have the quality, we have the programs, but as has been demonstrated in the last few weeks is there's been a great discussion of student loans. The great challenge is affordability and getting our college and university students through programs without a mountain of debt that they must confront in their work life.

KP: How has the role of the community college system changed? From your time plus now?

ML: Well its purpose has not really changed because in 1958, when Governor Hodges began what was the predecessor of community colleges, the community colleges always focused on workforce preparation. Actually college transfer was later to the game. So workforce preparation is still the significant majority of the credit hours given each year and that will continue to be the case. But I think the college transfer aspect is a growing responsibility, again because of that affordability issue.

KP: There's so many things you have done, but one of the awards I just want to pick on a little bit to help me out a little bit because you've won so many from the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce Award for distinguished public service to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors University Award. But the one that really stands out to me and makes me want to question is the Officer of the Most Excellent Order of British Empire. What did you do? How did you earn that distinguished award?

ML: Well one of the fascinating jobs that I have had was working with the government of Northern Ireland to help them completely restructure their education and economic development programs. When Tony Blair was prime minister, one of his major initiatives was to "devolve", that was his term, but to send back to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Whales, powers that had previously been held in London and had been directed from London. Those three providences of the United Kingdom, their department heads, their ministers were actually from the parliament in London. They were part-time. They would fly into Belfast or take the train to Edinburg or take the train to Carthage. And they were the head of the agency. There was a permanent secretary, the person was called, who was a civil servant, who was technically day-to-day the CEO. Tony Blair wanted those three provinces to be more independent and have these authorities. So they reestablished parliaments for the three that had been nonexistent for decades and they started turning over agencies to local control and the first agency that they did "devolve" in Northern Ireland was education. I happened to meet, through an economic development mission with Governor Hunt, the head of the University of Ulster. So I started this journey with a university connection and Gerry McKenna, who was that person, and I sat next to each other at a luncheon that Governor Hunt hosted and we talked about collaboration between two and four year higher education. The universities were getting significant pressure from parliament to work out a collaboration so that a person who wanted a four year degree, but had already completed a two year degree didn't have to start all over. Well of course that's our history too. He was fascinated by what we were doing and out of that initial luncheon came a visit from higher education leaders in the United Kingdom and North Carolina. One of the places we stopped was here. We visited App State and Caldwell Community College and Wilkes. We visited UNC-Charlotte and Central Piedmont in Charlotte. We visited North Carolina State and Johnston Community College and Guilford Tech and A&T. Out of that grew a collaboration between North Carolina and the United Kingdom which were very rich fruit for all of us. But the two year higher education in Northern Ireland latched on to this and wanted our assistance in helping them completely restructure. They really liked what they heard and saw about North Carolina's collaboration and in particular the role of two year colleges in that. So for about 8 years I worked with the Department of Employment and Learning as they did just that. And now if you were to go to Northern Ireland and look at two year higher education, economic development schemes and collaboration between two and four year higher education, it looks very much like North Carolina. So that department nominated me to the queen to receive this incredible award. If I would have been a British citizen I would have received the award at Buckingham Palace, directly from the queen. Since I'm not a British citizen, and since I can't, by the constitution, accept titles from a foreign government, this is honorary. Prince Charles came to the British ambassador's residence in Washington for the investiture, that's what they call it. And of course you know those Brit's; they really know how to do up ceremonies. It was a wonderful ceremony followed by a garden party in the ambassador's garden.

KP: That's a lot to be proud of.

ML: It really is.

KP: To have met the prince, that's a tremendous...

ML: The interesting thing was when I got a call from the ambassador, to tell me that I would receive this award and settling on a date and to come to his residence, I'll be honest with you, I didn't have the foggiest idea what Order of the British Empire was. I had to go to the Web and do some research. I, of course, was happy to accept the award. It was an honor whatever it was. But it is quite an honor and one that I'm very proud to have.

KP: Another one that I would certainly be proud of is the North Carolina Service Award that you received last fall. I happened to be in the area and got to attend that. A little bit about it, the governor gives this and it is the highest award the governor of the state can give. Governor Purdue was there and certainly made that an official pronouncement. What did you do for that? What did you do to earn that? You've done so much.

ML: Well I guess it was for the cumulative effect of the ways in which I've been blessed to serve in various roles. It is a prestigious award, the highest award that North Carolina can give, created by the legislature in 1964. Robert Lee Humber was a senator from Pitt County. He had been a Foreign Service officer working for the State Department all over the world, retired, and came back to his hometown of Greenville. A lot of things that we're proud of in North Carolina, one of which is the museum of art, was proposed by Senator Humber. One of the other things was the North Carolina award, which is given each year for four things: public service, fine arts, science and...what's the fourth one? Anyhow four of them. The governor appoints a selection committee and they selected me and the governor approved it and participated in a, as you saw, a very nice award ceremony and reception.

KP: I was the most proud of you of all of those that were up there because I thought "He's a trustee for Appalachian."

ML: And I'm sure that played a big part in my getting the award.

KP: I'm sure it did. That's my story anyway. You have contributed so much to the arts with all your other service. You served as the chair of the North Carolina Arts Council for a number of years. In your youth, were you an artistic person? What brought this on?

ML: I guess the arts were an escape from those tobacco fields for me. Very young, I started studying piano. From the time I could pick up a pencil I was drawing. So I was always interested in musical and arts of all kinds as well as visual arts. It just came natural, and I chaired the Goldsboro or Wayne County Arts Council, having supported Governor Hunt in his first run for governor, it was just a natural fit for me to become chairman of the State Arts Council. That in itself was a wonderful experience.

KP: Many of our students share your enthusiasm and commitment to serving others. In over the past three years, we have had more than 370,000 Appalachian student hours volunteering to do things in this area and region where we serve here, which comes to about $7.9 million of volunteer service to them. So what would you say to these students at Appalachian State? These young people that have that real desire like you did? What can you say? Words of encouragement.

ML: Well certainly they're already off to a good start. Certainly much of my public service was started as a student, first in the public schools when I was involved, as most students are, in student activities, but especially 4-H. I went to Chapel Hill and was also very active in campus activities there, and that was a beginning. I became, very early, committed to serving and that continued throughout my life. So that foundation that student service gives an individual is something that is so valuable and something that will leave these students to contribute many, many more hours of community service through their life. It's a rare person who starts in student leadership roles that doesn't continue it. It's something that gets in your blood and so it's so great that Appalachian has encouraged community service as a part for the student experience because it will reap benefits for the student and for their communities.

KP: As you think about the job market, as tight and all as it is, what do you see as the jobs of the future in America?

ML: Well, very clearly, health care and health related jobs are going to be very important. That's why I'm so excited about the new initiative here for health care professions. We're all getting older and there will never be enough people going in to those professions to meet the need. As quickly as we can begin turning out graduates in that job market, I think we will serve the state and Appalachian will have another feather in its cap. That includes not only direct patient care, but things like biotechnology and various research efforts that feed into a healthier community.

KP: We keep reading that it's the new economy, the new normal, the new way of doing everything, what about the delivery of higher education? There's a lot of discussion out there about distance education and the technology part that we were discussing. How do you feel about that?

ML: I'm a strong supporter of it and community colleges during my 11 years aggressively pursued various distance applications from online to a dock and a car where we sent people to remote sites to teach. So, no question, taking education to the student is something that all higher education must focus more attention on. One of the schemes of community colleges when they were created was to have a campus within a 20 minute drive of every citizen in the state. And that, pretty well, has been achieved, but one place that that could never be achieved was on Ocracoke Island. But people on Ocracoke now can get a two year community college degree and, in some cases, a four year degree, completely online. That is opening horizons that simply weren't available to students 13 years ago when I became president of the community college system. Just as is true at App State. The instructors or professors were initially reluctant, first of all, wondering if this is truly a viable method of delivering education. And also, just a new way of doing things. They always stood in front of a white board or black board and talked. Now, doing it online is completely different, using various video deliveries, perhaps was closer to the traditional classroom. But it is stretching our professionals and making them get past the comfort zone that maybe was not present when they first started. I think this delivery is a thing of the future. It's already here, it's just going to continue to expand. It also is a way we can reduce the cost of education. As I said in our opening remarks, one of the greatest challenges we face now, because distance applications do not require brick and mortar. One of the great challenges of Appalachian State is the lack of land. There's just so much land available when you back up to a mountain for building classrooms. So every student that you deliver education to in their living room instead of in a classroom is square footage that you won't ever have to build.

KP: You're certainly right. All of us in higher education, it's so different than when we started. There's no blackboard, there's no whiteboard. We have to learn that way of getting through, using technology, to have that personal connection that's there. That's been the hallmark of Appalachian. We know when we have smaller classes than some have and you like to be able to see them and call their names when you see them on campus. We have to learn.

ML: We do. One of the interesting things that instructors using online instruction have found, is that there actually is often more interactivity between the professor and the student online than in the traditional classroom. It goes without saying that some students are very intimidated to be in a classroom with other students. They are reluctant to raise their hand and ask a question of offer an answer to a question. It is found that students in the privacy of their living room, who can actually put their question on their screen and review it before they send it, they gain a confidence that they don't have in raising their hand and doing it. Secondly, when the professor or another student asks a question, if they can answer it on the screen before they send it, that gives them additional confidence. Instructors with whom I've spoken about online teaching say it is a far more challenging endeavor than classroom because it's 24/7. Students who are working full-time may log on at 2 o'clock in the morning and shoot a question to the instructor that the instructor, when they wake up the next morning, finds on their screen. So it's constant. It's not just during that hour of class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

KP: You have had such a distinguished career. You're not the kind of person to ever just stop. What's next? In addition to helping to position Appalachian State, as a trustee, to be one of the best institutions we could possibly be. What's next for you?

ML: Well that certainly is one of my goals.

KP: Certainly.

ML: And I certainly share it with you and with the university. I am going to stop practicing law next March when I turn 70. I think that's old enough to go to the office every day. I still have a very high energy level and I'm still very healthy, so you may, rest assured, that I will find things to do once I am no longer practicing law. Practicing law at Smith Anderson has been a wonderful experience. It's a great law firm and one that I have enjoyed the association with the attorneys and their clients. But, when you're 70, it's probably time to hang it up.

KP: Well, you won't hang it up completely. You're just not wired that way. That means if you're going to stop the practice of law, you can give more volunteer time to Appalachian State, and I will accept that in a heartbeat.

ML: Okay.

KP: Well thank you so much for being on the show today. I know that you're up in the High Country to participate in MerleFest. I want you to go and enjoy that. Thank you for your service to Appalachian. Thank you for all that you have done for the people of North Carolina. It's no doubt about it, North Carolina is a better place because of Martin Lancaster and we're honored to have you here today so thank you very much.

ML: And thank you.