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State Medicaid director to become new UNC Pembroke chancellor

May 21, 2015
The News & Observer

Dr. Robin Cummings, a surgeon and the state’s Medicaid director, will be the next chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

He was elected by the UNC Board of Governors on Thursday afternoon. He’ll start the job in July at an annual salary of $280,000. Cummings succeeds Kyle Carter, who is retiring next month after five years as chancellor. 

A native of Pembroke and a member of the Lumbee Tribe, Cummings, 59, is a cardiothoracic surgeon who practiced in the Pinehurst area. He has held several positions at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services since 2013, and for the past year has overseen the delivery of Medicaid to 1.8 million low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities. Besides being state Medicaid director, he is the deputy secretary for health services at DHHS.

A former chairman of the UNCP Board of Trustees, Cummings will now lead the 6,200-student campus founded in Robeson County in 1887 to educate American Indians. When he stepped to the podium in Chapel Hill, he said: “Only in America.”

In a statement, UNC President Tom Ross said Cummings “understands and appreciates the university’s rich history, and he is passionate about the larger role UNCP can play in the life of the region and its potential to change the future of so many North Carolinians.”

Cummings’ voice broke when he said, “I am honored, I am humbled and if I did not have to give this speech, I’d be speechless.”

He has an undergraduate degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and a medical degree from Duke University, where he also did his residency and a research fellowship.

Cummings said he’d often been asked which school – Carolina or Duke – was the greater influence on him. His answer, he said, is Pembroke, the school he didn’t attend. He described how every day, his elementary school bus drove by then-Pembroke State College. It was a beacon for so many disadvantaged children, Cummings said.

“I remember high school nights in the Mary Livermore Library on campus,” he said, “and growing comfortable with the whole atmosphere of a university.”

Cummings has a range of experience, from medicine to health administration and policy. He’s been active in Indian health issues and was the founding chairman of the N.C. American Indian Health Board.

DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos praised Cummings for leading the first restructuring of the Medicaid division in 35 years, which she described as “a critical step to ensuring its long-term stability and preparing for Medicaid reform.”

Cummings said he hoped to establish UNCP’s first doctoral degree and to consider new programs in health fields such as physical therapy, occupational therapy and optometry, to serve the population of southeastern North Carolina. An academic program started two years ago at the university – Southeast American Indian studies – could easily garner national recognition and become its own school within Pembroke, Cummings said. He pledged to raise private money to execute that vision.

“I am a product of education. I’m here today because of education,” Cummings said. “I believe in its transformative power for individuals, for families, for our state and our nation. Education can cure a lot of the ills that our society presently faces. It’s the great equalizer, it’s the path to opportunity and a great nation."