2001: Molly Broad

Staff WritersApril 6, 2005 

It was past noon in the American studies class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but several dozen students were still sipping coffee and chewing on bagels when UNC system President Molly Broad slipped off her jacket, flipped on her PowerPoint presentation and launched into a guest lecture on leadership.

Broad outlined the campaign strategy that persuaded voters to approve $3.1 billion last year for the state's public universities and community colleges --the largest higher education bond in the nation's history. But when it came time for questions, a young man in the middle of the room had something else on his mind.

"What's it like to be a leader in this state when you're not from North Carolina?" he asked. It has been more than four years since Broad became the third president of the UNC system, and she still finds it impossible to escape that question.

"It is a great disadvantage not to be from North Carolina," Broad answered bluntly. "People talk about me being the first woman president, but what was a very big deal was that I'm a non-North Carolinian. There are families and connections and stories that I cannot be a part of. But I can observe it, understand it and applaud it."

As the students filled their backpacks and filed out of the room, Broad headed for the car at her usual brisk clip and offered one more thought. "I also think I see things in this state that native North Carolinians just don't see."

What Broad sees -- and will tell people when prodded -- is that she inherited a system with aging buildings, lagging salaries and a flawed plan to keep the rising costs of college within the reach of blue-collar families. She sees a General Assembly so fond of its higher education system and so wrapped up in age-old debates that it doesn't recognize the future that is right around the corner.

"This is arguably the most challenging time in higher education in the past century," she said. "I don't want to say anything unkind, but we were not the exemplar of best practices when I arrived here as president. This is a great university that in my judgment was at risk on multiple fronts. So I have been in a hurry. We don't have time to screw around."

As the tobacco and textile industries crumble in North Carolina, the 16 universities of the UNC system are under enormous pressure to help the state reposition its economy. And Broad faces the more fundamental task of running one of the state's largest institutions.

While UNC's share of the state budget has declined for 14 consecutive years, the universities still spend about 13 cents of every state dollar. Broad's decisions affect 37,000 employees, 170,000 students and combined budgets that total almost $4.8 billion.

She leads a system that owes its history to the families and powerbrokers who define what is right about the state's good-old-boy network. But with her corporate suits and highlighted hair, Broad is definitely not a good old boy. Good old boys swap stories and work their connections. Broad reads reports until midnight and takes home canvas bags filled with mail on weekends.

She is an Irish Catholic who grew up in Pennsylvania, an economist by training who went to college in New York and a national leader in education who never found the time to finish her doctorate. The daughter of two schoolteachers, she sometimes jokes that a native Tar Heel might know better than to tackle the issues she has taken on.

Broad has challenged the state's allegiance to rock-bottom tuition costs, a decision that touches the bank accounts of every parent who enrolls a child in a state university. The effects of her work on the $3.1 billion construction project --nearly 10 times larger than any previous building program by UNC --will ripple through the state's economy for more than a decade. She has almost single-handedly created a place for the system in national policy debates about issues ranging from genomics to distance learning to the future of the country's great land grant universities.

With an energy that belies her 60 years, Broad has set herself an equally ambitious agenda for the future. She is on a crusade to generate more money for the state's campuses from sources beyond the state. She wants the 16 campus chancellors to be given more authority so those dollars will be spent more effectively. At the same time, she is pushing her schools to make higher education more accessible through technology.

More than a few people have questioned whether Broad can pull all this off.

"I think Molly Broad is a very intelligent woman," said Democrat Marc Basnight, leader of the state Senate and one of the most powerful politicians in North Carolina. "But Molly's got a job that's bigger than her. It's bigger than the whole world."

Broad's allies say her single-minded focus is exactly why she will succeed, although her intensity often makes people see her as scripted, bureaucratic and even intimidating. She said this is the hardest job she has ever had, but she also said it's the size and complexity of a challenge that appeals to her. It's one of the things that makes her tick. She simply hates to fail.

"So," she explained with a shrug of her shoulders, "I'm in a hurry now. I have a lot of work to do."


Miss Earnest

As Broad's staff discovered soon after she arrived in July 1997, she has an almost suffocating grasp of detail. It is among her greatest assets.

She can talk at length about the history of school finance in North Carolina or the future of a system known as Internet2. She can conjure up minute pieces of information about the value of a photonics grant just as easily as she cites the formulas used by U.S. News & World Report to rank colleges.

She also does not sleep much, often getting out of bed by 5 a.m. and to work by 6. When she first arrived, she decided five days ought to be enough to visit each of the system's 16 campuses. Reports soon began to circulate about e-mail she sent in the middle of the night or phone calls at dawn.

"There are times when it almost seems unfair," cracked J.B. Milliken, a UNC vice president who works closely with Broad. "She doesn't need eight hours of sleep, she spends almost all her time working and she grasps issues so quickly that she is always the best-prepared person in the room. Her understanding of things is granular."

Broad can't remember a time when she didn't approach life this way.

"I'm afraid that I was a very earnest child," she explained. "You know, 'Miss Goody Two Shoes. You always do everything right. You make us look bad.' So, earnest, that's me. And I think that's absolutely true today. I'm sure there is another, more flattering way of saying it, but that's the way it is."

Molly Corbett grew up near the coal fields of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the town her grandfather called home when he came to America from Ireland in the 1860s.

"I remember as a little girl sitting on the front porch on the swing, and I would see the men coming home at night, and the only thing white I would see was their eyes," Broad said. "Everything else was black from the mines. That was very much a part of my life."

Broad's mother had been a teacher, but in those days, married women were not allowed to work in the public schools. So the family of six made do on what their father earned as a teacher, about $5,000 a year. As Broad approached her high school graduation in 1958, the straight-A student set her heart on Syracuse University. But with one of her older brothers already in college, her father couldn't afford it.

She applied for a General Motors Scholarship and, to her father's surprise, won it.

College was beyond anything Broad ever imagined. Economics so fascinated her, she would literally get up in the middle of the night to read textbooks. By sophomore year, she had discovered the world of a sorority house.

"It was a big deal for me to be in a sorority," Broad said. "While I had a wonderful life, it was not a life in which I knew how to hold a teacup or when you wore white gloves." That was also the year that Bob Broad, president of his fraternity, fell for the freckled Irish girl who happened to be setting the curve in his statistics class.

The two were married after graduation in 1962, and Broad walked away from several opportunities to attend Ivy League schools so the couple could settle in Columbus, Ohio, where Bob was offered a job with a company that sold china and silver.

"I was definitely the trailing spouse," she said, a large and easy smile filling her face. "Was there any other way back then?"

By sheer luck, Broad returned to Syracuse University when her husband was transferred back in 1966. She was awarded a full scholarship a year later to pursue her doctorate in economics. She was so busy with work and school that she brought student exams to the hospital so she could grade them after delivering her second son, Matthew.

With only her dissertation left to obtain a Ph.D., she took a job at Syracuse University in 1971 crunching numbers and offering data analysis in what became a series of low-profile posts. "Real back-of-the-house work," she called it.

Then came the turning point in her career, an invitation in 1976 to run a commission that would help New York's higher education systems emerge stronger from a statewide financial crisis. But it meant a one-year stint of leaving the house at 5 a.m. Monday to catch the train to Albany and returning late Thursday night, only to spend Fridays and Saturdays working another job at the university. With the blessing of Bob and help from her mother to raise the boys,who were then 8 and 13,Broad began to understand what it meant to run an organization.

"It moved me from the back of the house to the front of the house."

When she returned to Syracuse University, she handled finance, fund-raising and lobbying at the state and national levels. She structured the deal that built the Carrier Dome,the fifth-largest domed stadium in the country and the first such building in the Northeast. Broad was on her way.

It wasn't always a smooth ride. During a time when she was the top administrator of Arizona's higher education system in the late 1980s, she lost a nasty fight with The Arizona Republic over her authority to withhold the names of people who were being considered for a campus president's job. The fight became so bitter that Broad would sometimes snatch the newspaper from her own driveway before her mother had a chance to see the day's headlines.

In 1992, she got a chance to become second-in-command at a much larger system - California State University - and she loved it there. She had no plans to leave, until she got a call during the holidays in 1996. The UNC system was looking for a new president.

"Go ahead and interview," her boss told her. "It will be a good experience. You don't need to worry that they'll hire you. You never finished that Ph.D."

On a Sunday night in April, Broad was sitting alone in a Washington, D.C., hotel room when she returned a phone call from former Gov. Jim Holshouser, the head of the UNC search committee. "So, are you ready to come to North Carolina?" Holshouser asked.

Broad remembers saying yes, but inside she was stunned. She didn't even think to call her husband before accepting the job. She soon found herself consuming every piece of information she could find about Tar Heels, beginning with the legislature.

Politics 101

If Broad's strategy is going to succeed, she knows she must win over the General Assembly, where her inability to claim family roots is particularly glaring.

"On the political scene, it counts for everything," Broad said. "There are circles. There are some people right at the center of those circles, and nobody else is getting in there. No matter how smart you are, no matter how much you care. ... No amount of homework, no amount of studying and no amount of reading about it is a substitute."

So Broad approaches the legislature the only other way she knows: as a hard-nosed, well-prepared negotiator. Her distant and formal style doesn't always sit well.

In the Greek Revival home on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill where the UNC president lives, Broad and her top executives stared stone-faced at a small group of lawmakers who had come this spring with their aides and staff in tow. The legislators came to negotiate $25 million in budget cuts, down from the $125 million they had started with. But the figure was still too high for Broad, who refused to negotiate.

After the meeting, several lawmakers were furious. What was the matter with her? Didn't she understand the rules of the game?

State Sen. Walter Dalton, a Democrat from Rutherford County and a key player in shaping the state's education budget, did his best to play peacemaker despite his own annoyance. It was only much later that another thought occurred to him. Maybe she was still learning the ropes, but maybe she also wanted to make clear who was sitting in the president's chair these days.

"The learning curve was still new to her," Dalton said. "But the learning curve works both ways."

When the final budget passed, none of the system's 16 campuses took a major financial hit.

Broad knows that her discipline and perseverance don't win her many friends among lawmakers, but the economist in her accounts for a day's work by looking at the bottom line. Besides, what the legislators really want, she can't give.

"Some legislators, they say to me: 'We need to see you one-on-one in an informal setting, not just your official role.' And I haven't done that," Broad said.

She doesn't have time to hang around the halls of the General Assembly. "I can't allocate time in the hopes of just catching one of them,'' she said.

This isn't what legislators are used to hearing from state employees. But UNC's take of the state budget has shrunk from more than 17 percent in the mid-1980s to less than 13 percent today. That means money from lawmakers accounts for less than half of all revenue at some large universities. The shift has put Broad in a bind when it comes to dividing her time and loyalties.

Still, her political skills are improving. Before this year's budget negotiations, her biggest splash in the legislature was a belly-flop.

In 1999, the state's top Democrats rolled out a Senate bill to give the system $3 billion for construction and repair. Less than a month later, the bill died, killed by Republicans who felt jilted and House members who insisted it be put on a ballot.

Rep. David Miner, a Wake County Republican, minced no words after the final vote: "Whoever was in charge of this needs to take a course in Politics 101."

Broad went well beyond Politics 101. She turned to the state's business lobby for help, and the two put together a bond campaign that still earns praise. This time the request to put the issue on the ballot flew through the legislature. Broad then worked the phones for campaign cash, arranged visits to highlight campus needs, spoke at Rotary Club meetings and made sure every chancellor was on board.

"It was impressive," said Phil Kirk, chairman of the state's largest business lobby. "Her style is much like that of a CEO, so I think that's why she relates well to other CEOs. Most educators take a long time to make a decision. She's not like that."

The bond issue did not fail in any of the state's 100 counties. Speaking to the students in the American studies class in Chapel Hill, Broad reflected on the victory.

"Everything looks like a failure when you're only halfway done," she told them. "I think that's a lesson you should all remember."

Leadership 101

While many of Broad's efforts are still a work in progress, it is in picking chancellors that she has already made her mark. She has hired nine of the system's 16 chancellors and made it clear with her first hire --Marye Anne Fox at N.C. State University --that she isn't afraid to reject the top choice of campus trustees.

Drawing on her national reputation and vast network of contacts, her choices of people such as Fox, James Moeser at UNC-CH and James Renick at N.C. A&T State University have impressed others nationally.

"Marye Anne Fox is regarded by many people as a prime catch, and the same can be said about the new chancellor at Chapel Hill," said Stanley Ikenberry, former president of the American Council on Education. "She spends a lot of time recruiting strong people. At the end of the day, that is probably the most important contribution a chief officer can make."

Broad doesn't limit her campus involvement to selecting new chancellors. From her point of view, a university can't make much progress if the local trustees and chancellor aren't pulling in the same direction. Shortly after she arrived, she set up a strict schedule of performance reviews for chancellors --a first for the system. If trustee relations become frayed, she quietly hires "an executive coach" to help. She meets with her chancellors often.

"If a chancellor has his hearing aid turned off, it is my job to turn it back on," she said. "In higher education, you become a chancellor because you were a very good member of the faculty. It's not because you ever took any education in leadership skills."

This is Leadership 101 to Broad, and decidedly different from the way things were run under former presidents C.D. Spangler and Bill Friday. But if she can learn North Carolina politics, she thinks the leaders and trustees of the UNC schools can come to understand her definition of good management.

It's a delicate balancing act for Broad, especially because trustees don't answer directly to her. And it isn't always accepted.

"The genius of the UNC system, as Bill Friday more or less designed it, is that the president and the Board of Governors had enormous power, but they used it very sparingly," one high-level administrator said. "Molly has not always been as delicate and as careful as they were."

Chancellor Frank Borkowski of Appalachian State University, who was hired by Spangler in 1993, said he enjoys working with Broad. But Borkowski said it's hard to miss the differences in Broad's leadership style compared to that of Spangler, a man who is first and foremost a successful business executive.

"There certainly were issues that came up that he did not have the background to deal with, and it was up to us to decide what to do," Borkowski said. "She simply has broader experience.''

Broad leaned on that experience last year when she decided the trustees at East Carolina University overstepped their bounds by trying to fire Richard Eakin as chancellor. Broad won't talk specifically about what happened at ECU, but she was plain-spoken about how she views her role when trustees and chancellors don't get along.

"You intervene, you intervene, you intervene," Broad said.

Tackling tuition

Despite her formal public persona, Broad loves to mingle with students on their turf. Andrew Payne, a senior at NCSU and student representative on the UNC Board of Governors, found he could barely pull her out of the stands at Carter-Finley Stadium this fall during the Carolina-State football game.

Not surprisingly, one of the topics discussed was student tuition.

Few issues in the UNC system command the reverence that is bestowed upon the promise of low tuition for North Carolina's students. Its history can be traced to the state's constitution --Article IX, Section 9 -- which says the state must provide "as far as practicable" a free higher education to its citizens.

Spangler believed anything but strict adherence to Article IX would ultimately alter the fabric of the state's higher education system. As a newcomer, Broad doesn't share that absolute belief. She thinks tuition that is as low "as practicable" for a research program should cost more than tuition for an undergraduate degree.

Her chance to make key changes came in her first month in office when she learned that Paul Fulton, then the dean of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-CH, had gone behind her back to the General Assembly to request a $5,000 tuition increase for his program.

Fulton's action triggered a letter to Broad from Rep. Gene Arnold, a Republican from Rocky Mount, who said the request "places you in an unnecessary and awkward position as a first test of your authority." Just in case that wasn't clear enough, he underscored his concerns in a phone call.

While Arnold was talking politics, Broad was thinking economics. Would higher tuition really cut the supply of students or the demand for an MBA from UNC-CH?

She met with Fulton over breakfast at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill and did something Spangler never considered --she acknowledged that his program had a problem and listened to his pitch.

Broad's willingness to abandon the traditional approach to tuition has failed in some regards, mostly because the Board of Governors approved tuition increases outside its own guidelines.

"The board didn't follow its own policy," Payne said. "President Broad could have done a lot more at the very beginning of the situation and said this was not what the tuition policy was for."

In a state that has no significant student-aid program, a small tuition increase can become a big problem for some families. But Broad thinks it is bad economics to offer programs of poorer quality just to keep tuition affordable for every student.

So more student aid is now one of her top priorities, and she is not satisfied with her progress.

"We want a university that every kid in North Carolina has a real chance of attending," she said. "If we lose that, I think we have broken the social compact with the citizens of North Carolina."

Power plays

Broad's relentless style has won her a small army of admirers, but to her chagrin she is unable to pierce the inner circle formed by some of the most powerful men in the state. State senators such as Tony Rand, Howard Lee and Basnight are the best known among these power brokers, but just outside the public spotlight is Walter Davis.

Davis, retired and a millionaire many times over, is one of the wealthiest players in North Carolina politics. In addition to donating millions of dollars to the schools and the politicians of his native state, the former Texas oilman has spent years on various university boards. In almost 30 years of service, his contributions and controversies are a part of North Carolina's education history.

Two days after Broad arrived, he offered to fly her to the coast so they could meet. Then Broad did something to which Davis is unaccustomed. She turned him down.

Less than a year later, the two were going head-to-head over a plan to restructure UNC Hospitals.

Few disagreed that the sprawling state-owned medical center on the southwest campus in Chapel Hill needed attention in 1998. It was rapidly falling behind its national peers and losing ground at home where Duke University's health-care system was aggressively expanding.

Broad pushed for a new arrangement in which a restructured management team would have much greater flexibility but still operate under the UNC president and the Board of Governors. Davis pushed hard to give UNC-CH control of the medical complex.

Broad gave the school key roles in a new hospital system, but she clearly won the fight for overall control. Comparing the hospital to a heavyweight boxer who had one fist tied behind his back, the president and chief executive officer of UNC Hospitals said Broad's efforts allowed the organization to compete again.

"What she led was the untying of that fist," Eric B. Munson said. "She took on the good old boys and prevailed."

Broad also knew she had just paid a price for that victory, summing it up in a single word: "Walter." She had no idea when the two might find another issue of mutual interest. She only knew they would almost surely be on opposite sides.

The issue surfaced this May when Davis filed a lawsuit challenging the size and makeup of the UNC system's Board of Governors. That same week, a proposal began to circulate in the Senate to give NCSU and UNC-CH special authority to set salaries and raise tuition.

Broad corralled the Senate proposal but got another surprise in October. In response to Davis' lawsuit, Lee, Basnight and Rand suggested that a legislative study commission be formed to assess the entire UNC system. Davis, who is a friend and close ally of Basnight, wasn't bashful about letting people know he supported both ideas.

"I hate to see something not run well, and I think it's still not run well," Davis said. "What else can I do but get it in front of the legislature?"

Broad's supporters wondered aloud whether the efforts were the first step in dismantling the system. Although the debate was cloaked in legislative rhetoric and academic jargon, it clearly looked like a power grab to those who follow the inner workings of the system.

"It's Walter Davis and a group of Chapel Hill loyalists who fancy that if Chapel Hill were given more freedom, it would soar," said John Sanders, a former member of the Board of Governors.

In the end, legislators cut a deal to limit the study commission's threat. Broad won the round, but she knows the fight isn't over.

A national presence

It was a glorious November morning as the eight-passenger turbojet glided over the gold and auburn hills of the Carolina Piedmont. Broad was not admiring the view. It was 7:35, and she needed to prepare for what would be a very long day.

Unfortunately, not even Sen. Jesse Helms could get permission for her to land at Reagan National Airport in the tight security after Sept. 11. The trip to Dulles added 90 minutes of travel time round-trip, and Broad was determined not to waste a bit of it. In the plane, she pulled out the tray to do her "homework"; in the taxi to the capital, she fired off a half-dozen phone calls to check details and chat with the UNC lobbyist.

UNC had no lobbyist at the federal level before Broad arrived. It barely had a voice in national policy issues. Broad has changed that dramatically.

Where Spangler sat on two national higher education organizations, the Association of American Universities and the Business-Higher Education Forum, Broad sits on 20. She is president of one, chairman of another and sits on the boards of directors of 10 more. She typically makes three out-of-state trips a month. In the past year, she has traveled to Washington 15 times.

In her signature suits and plum-shaded manicures, this is where Broad swaps stories and works her connections. Here, her colleagues see her as a Washington policymaker who not only understands the rules of the game but is often the one picking the players.

"Molly is one of the premier higher education leaders in the country, has been for a long time," said Stanley Ikenberry, the former president of the American Council on Education. "But certainly since she's arrived at the University of North Carolina, she's been much more visible and has had much more impact on the national scene. One just sees her fingerprints, the evidence of her influence, everywhere."

With UNC's voice now established on important national issues, Broad is turning her attention to an issue she thinks will imprint her vision on the state's higher education system: information technology. The day ahead of her has many meetings, but the discussions about technology are dearest to her heart.

Broad became chairman of the national board for Internet2 in January. The second-generation Internet, one the public will eventually inherit, is a high-speed computer network that connects about 200 universities with sophisticated technology that dramatically improves videoconferencing, streaming video and telemedicine. Start-up membership costs $45,000 per institution.

Broad has already won a major debate to dramatically expand the system beyond elite research institutions so it will eventually include community colleges and public schools. She is also spearheading a project called The Millennium Partnership Initiative, which is aimed at persuading Congress to reinvest in land-grant universities on a scale similar to that which led to their establishment a century ago. But this time the universities would be given bandwidth cable for computer networking instead of land.

If this works, supporters of the project say higher education will never look the same.

"She is part of the invention of the future, not just for North Carolina but for the world,'' said Gary Bachula, vice president for external relations at Internet2. "If this comes to fruition, it's going to make a huge difference to both the universities and the country as a whole. And people are going to look back and say, 'Molly Broad did that.' "

This isn't some dream to Broad that she simply enjoys chasing. That would be a poor use of time. To Broad, a networked North Carolina plays a critical role in answering critics' questions about whether she can really pull off her ambitious agenda.

Virtual classrooms could erase geographic barriers, improve access to higher education and fuel the economy with better-educated workers. They could help handle a coming enrollment boom. A networked system could attract new research through new technologies, which in turn would create new streams of revenue for university budgets. Such cutting-edge programs would attract the best faculty.

"Information technology is profoundly altering the way we do everything," Broad said. "If we do all of that well and we don't break the bank in the process, we will be able to deliver better education, better research, to more people. And that is a big, important job."

It is almost overwhelming to Broad when she thinks about the path that led her to this job. She was never a college dean or even a faculty member. Her grandfather's schooling stopped at grade three.

But in Broad's view of education, there are no outsiders. There are only other people like her who work hard, refuse to give up and are loyal to their cause. Her cause is to improve the state's public universities for as long as she's entrusted with the job.

"My plan," she explained, "is to be buried in North Carolina."

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