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As chancellor of the Connecticut State University System, David G. Carter had to deal with many layers of politics — the governor, state legislature, presidents of the system’s four campuses, their faculties and staffs and his own board of trustees.

Despite the political challenges, Carter compiled a solid record of cost-cutting at a time of budget retrenchment in Connecticut’s government, even as he secured funding to build up the state universities and increased diversity as well as retention and graduation rates. A financial capstone was a $1 billion bond issue for new campus buildings, the largest amount the system has ever received from the legislature for construction.

“Politics, hey man, you learn how to play the game,” said Carter, 68, who retired last month after five years as chancellor. “I didn’t do it alone. I had good people around me.”

In 2006, Carter became one of a handful of African Americans in the country to lead a state system of predominately white universities. Another currently is Errol Davis of the State University System of Georgia.

Before becoming chancellor, Carter was president of Eastern Connecticut State University for 18 years, lifting it from a small, sleepy school in Willimantic into the state’s public liberal arts university. He was the first African American to preside over a four-year college in Connecticut.

“The transformation of Eastern Connecticut State University and later the substantial programs of the Connecticut State University System, driven by his respect for all who contribute to the vibrancy of an academic community and his devotion to students, was always something to behold,” said Richard J. Balducci, vice chairman of the system’s trustees.

His 45-year career in education has been a long road for Carter, who grew up in poverty in Dayton, Ohio before enrolling as an undergraduate in historically-black Central State University, earning a master’s at Miami University of Ohio and then a doctorate from Ohio State University. He came to New England in the late seventies to be an education professor at the University of Connecticut after teaching at Pennsylvania State University.

 “I’ve had a great life, to go from three sleeping on a bed with a bb gun in case [a] rat or mouse ran across the floor. I know what it is to be on welfare,” said Carter, who lived with his mother and brother after his father died. Not long before his death, when Carter was five, a fire destroyed the family home and business, a general store that was not insured.

As president of Eastern Connecticut, Carter was known for knowing virtually every student by name and at times dispensing candid advice correcting personal behavior. He looked back on his career of motivating students to achieve as a way of balancing his life’s ledger.

“What I was doing wasn’t a job or an obligation, but just giving back a little what was given to me,” particularly by mentors who helped him early in life, Carter explained.

As chancellor, Carter oversaw the campuses of Eastern Connecticut, Central Connecticut, Southern Connecticut and Western Connecticut state universities, which together enroll about 37,000 students. During his five-year tenure, he appointed an African American, Stanley Battle, as interim president of Southern Connecticut, and trustees hired Elsa M. Núñez as the first Hispanic president of a four-year college in the state.

He is proud of administrative accomplishments — sharing credit with his staff — that include more than $43 million in savings, a merger of the four campuses into a single e-mail system and a long-sought agreement on smoothly transferring community college students into the university system.

The system also credits him with increasing the number of science majors and programs in science, engineering, technology and mathematics. Since 2007, the four campuses have worked to reduced minority achievement gaps through a multi-faceted program called “Access to Success.”

Carter retired March 1, citing health reasons and a desire to spend more time with his two grandchildren, “combined with politics” that may have been taking a toll on his health. He suffers from Meniere’s disease, an incurable condition that causes partial hearing loss and devastating, unpredictable bouts of vertigo.

He plans to split his time between New Haven and a second home in Arizona, but not in idle retirement. Asked what he intends to do, he ticks off more than a half-dozen activities. They range from volunteering with a prison reading program, domestic violence center and educational enrichment programs to writing, motivational speaking, consulting, even selling real estate to support his charitable activities.

“I’m not ready to retire,” Carter said. “I know that now, being home. I got to do something.”