Point of View

What UNC needs in a chancellor

October 5, 2012 

I cannot imagine a better chancellor than Holden Thorp. But if there is to be a change in chancellors at UNC-Chapel Hill, choosing his successor is as pressing a challenge as any that the university faces.

Carolina’s next chancellor must maintain and build on the excellence of this university as a premier teaching and research institution and must uphold our responsibilities as the flagship public university of the state.

Many folks within our community have thought long and hard about the qualities our next chancellor should have. Five stand out.

1 The chancellor must be firmly committed to the values that have long defined our university: quality, integrity and intellectual freedom. These are the values that have made us the most affordable institution of higher education among the country’s best universities.

The next chancellor should be firmly committed to the state constitution’s guarantee of public higher education at the lowest possible cost and to Carolina Covenant’s promise to all low-income students who have been admitted that they will be able to enroll without worrying about how they can pay for their education. The next chancellor should be devoted to upholding our great tradition of ensuring diversity in admissions and hiring.

2 The next chancellor must have impeccable character. He or she must be incorruptible, candid, courageous and vigilant in ensuring and defending the university’s core values. The next chancellor must possess intellectual curiosity, be wise enough to know the limits of his or her knowledge and be willing to learn more. He or she should be open to new ideas and tolerant of disagreement.

Our chancellor also needs the strength of character to vigorously defend the university’s mission. She or he should be unafraid to speak truth to power to the Board of Trustees, the Board of Governors and the General Assembly; to stand up for the faculty when it’s right; and to challenge it when it’s wrong.

3 The next chancellor must be politically astute, with proven skills to work effectively with all who comprise our community, including students, alumni, faculty, staff and the people of the state, as well as the state’s political leaders, the media and other institutions, public and private, with whom we interact.

4 The next chancellor must offer a clear, compelling vision for the future of Carolina and understand the challenges facing higher education, particularly at public universities. This requires not just a love of, and respect for, higher education, but also a record of academic accomplishment.

The next chancellor must recognize the value of public education, which extends beyond preparing students for employment immediately upon graduation. A liberal arts education enables students to live meaningfully in the world, work with a diverse citizenry, challenge their preconceptions, think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems by using multiple perspectives. A Carolina without liberal arts at its core is no longer Carolina.

5 The next chancellor needs support. Many people, particularly within the media, treat the chancellor as if he or she were a piñata. Too often people assume the chancellor leads an institution alone. A chancellor cannot lead a complex institution without the support of our community.

This includes the constant aid of people within the university and unbending backing from the Board of Trustees and Board of Governors. These boards must be work with, rather than against, the chancellor in helping the university move forward.

Now, more than ever, as public universities face unprecedented economic challenges, the people charged with fashioning and implementing Carolina’s future must be committed to maintaining its academic excellence, to being partners in fulfilling Carolina’s mission and to disagreeing without being disagreeable. If they cannot do that, the next chancellor will have failed before he or she has even started.

These criteria are idealistic but not unrealistic. Carolina has a long history of chancellors who have met all these criteria. People such as Frank Porter Graham, Paul Hardin and Holden Thorp have ably led this institution through troubled times and helped us emerge, each time, a better, more diverse, more humane, more effective community. The people of this state and the nation’s first public university deserve nothing less.

Mike Gerhardt is a law professor and member of the Faculty Executive Committee at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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