CHAPEL HILL — In one breath, UNC system president Erskine Bowles announced Friday that he plans to step down at the end of the year. In the next breath, Bowles shifted back to what became his hallmark in four years of long workdays: getting more done.
"Believe you me, I know our work is far from finished, and I promise you I'm going to continue to work, to drive, to push just as hard in the months ahead as I have over the past four years," Bowles told the UNC Board of Governors.
Indeed, the board went back to work quickly after Bowles' announcement, at the request of board chairwoman Hannah Gage.
"In the next couple of weeks, we'll make an announcement about a search committee and move forward," Gage said. "But for now we'll respect the wishes of the man we respect, and we hunker down and we work."
Gage said Bowles' effect on the 16-campus system had been transformative.
"He came along at the perfect time, I think, with the skill set and talents that the UNC system needed at this point in history," she said.
Bowles, 64, is a multimillionaire from a storied North Carolina family, the son of Hargrove "Skipper" Bowles, a Greensboro businessman who served in the legislature and Cabinet of Gov. Terry Sanford before running unsuccessfully as the Democratic nominee for governor in 1972. The elder Bowles, who died in 1986, led the fundraising effort to build the Dean E. Smith Center at UNC-Chapel Hill and has a road named for him on campus.
The younger Bowles is a graduate of UNC-CH and Columbia University. He began his career at Morgan Stanley in New York before co-founding several financial firms in Charlotte. President Bill Clinton talked him into becoming director of the Small Business Administration in 1993 and eventually named Bowles the White House chief of staff from 1996 through 1998. Bowles ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2002 and 2004.
Eating at the desk
Bowles came to the UNC presidency with a reputation as a workhorse, and he has not disappointed. He is known for his early mornings, late nights and almost-daily takeout orders for Chick-fil-A salads that he eats at his desk. Many staffers have marveled at his work capacity - and the similar expectations he has for their output.
He took office Jan. 1, 2006, with a lot of big talk about accountability, transparency and efficiency. He had already barnstormed the state, touring each of the system's university campuses, visiting with chancellors, students and others.
Early in his tenure, he was already finding problems and demanding solutions. One example: A month before he became president, he met with faculty at UNC-CH and pronounced the university system's long-range plan "squishy" and unspecific.
Four years later, the system has redefined its planning process and installed checks and balances to slow a long proliferation of academic programs that, at times, overlapped unnecessarily between campuses.
Judith Wegner, a UNC-CH law professor and chairwoman of the UNC system's Faculty Assembly, credits Bowles with hiring strong chancellors on numerous campuses. In particular, Bowles found well-regarded leaders for several historically black institutions, some of which were struggling with low graduation rates and unflattering financial audits.
"He really believes in the mission of those schools, and I think he really wants strength and good judgment there," Wegner said.
'A change agent'
Bowles' tenure has included tribulations. He had to replace chancellors at Fayetteville State and N.C. A&T following the discovery of financial abuses on both campuses. In 2009, Bowles presided over a massive series of budget cuts that resulted in the elimination of about 900 jobs across the university system.
He insisted to campuses that the cuts be made largely in administration.
Then, in the middle of dealing with the cuts, a scandal boiled over at the state's largest university, N.C. State. Amid a storm of questions about NCSU's hiring of former state first lady Mary Easley, Chancellor James Oblinger resigned, along with the university's provost and the chairman of its Board of Trustees.
Bowles calmed the crisis by persuading the respected former chancellor of UNC-Charlotte, Jim Woodward, to come out of retirement and serve as interim chancellor.
On Friday, Bowles vowed repeatedly to do all he can to finish a plan that calls for improving K-12 education, increasing access to higher education and making the universities more nimble, efficient and responsive.
Bowles never intended to have a long tenure at UNC. In an April 2009 interview with The News & Observer, he said his leadership style has a finite shelf life.
"I'm not going to do this job forever," he said. "Historically, the president of the university has left at 65; I think that's probably a good idea. Like I told somebody earlier today, they'll be ready to get rid of me. I am a change agent. I'm a pusher. I'm a driver. And you can only take so much of that. Really, they'll need a kinder, softer person."
Bowles said Friday that he hasn't thought much about what he'll do after leaving the system.
He said he looks forward to heading home to Charlotte to sleep in his own bed and spend more time with his family after living alone so much in Chapel Hill. He also said that he would likely be involved in various "assignments in the business world," and would be open to being drafted to work on important local, state and national political initiatives, as long as the focus fits his passions and wasn't partisan.
"My wife said, 'You know Erskine, thinking about you retiring is like a joke. You'll probably get through Monday, but when Tuesday comes you're going to try to figure out what to do.'"
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