E.K. Fretwell was trained as a professor of English and started his teaching career as an elementary teacher in Brookline. He eventually served as the president of the State University of New York at Buffalo, and after that as the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. From this post he stepped down when he reached North Carolina's mandatory retirement age in 1989.
The University system expanded during Fretwell's tenure, when the Lowell and Dartmouth campuses (previously the University of Lowell and Southeastern Massachusetts University) were consolidated into the University under Chapter 142 of the Acts of 1991.
On July 1, 1991, he was named interim president for the University of Massachusetts system.