The challenge in Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill’s next chancellor must have solid experience, and a strong will.

October 9, 2012 

No matter what’s happened at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the last couple of years, and a lot has, the job of chancellor remains one of the most prestigious and historic positions in American higher education. This was the job occupied, under a different title and structure, by the legendary Frank Porter Graham. The university is now ninth in the country among recipients of federal research and development dollars.

Chartered in 1789, the university claims to be the oldest such public institution in the country and includes in its alumni corps some of the country’s most esteemed scientists and historians along with figures such as Thomas Wolfe, Andy Griffith and Charles Kuralt.

Finding someone to hold the position of chancellor, to follow those depicted in portraits that hang in Wilson Library, won’t be easy. But even with some decidedly unwanted attention in the wake of an athletics scandal that resulted in sanctions against the football team, and an academic fraud scandal that remains under investigation on several fronts, the line of applicants will be deep. Of that, the 21 members of the trustees’ search committee that will choose at least two finalists may be sure.

That isn’t boasting or cheerleading. It is fact. Chapel Hill will weather this ongoing storm, though the successor to current Chancellor Holden Thorp will need to be prepared to deal with the aftermath.

The ingredients

It’s tempting to list the qualifications for a new chancellor as they’ve been listed in jest at this and other institutions at such times: a generous portion of Solomon, the political savvy of Bill Clinton, the academic credentials of Einstein, the charisma of Kennedy and the self-confidence of Moses.

And even then, some on the campus would question why an internal candidate wasn’t chosen, if that’s the way it works out, or whether the new leader has sufficient experience to supervise a major athletics program. Mercy.

In terms of personal characteristics, a belief in publicly supported higher education and a commitment that it provide an opportunity for all, even students whose families are poor, is imperative.

A sacred duty

The chancellor must understand that the university belongs to the public, not to athletics boosters, not to the wealthiest alumni, and that it has a sacred duty of public service, whether that be educating schoolteachers or taking care of people in its spectacular research hospitals. That duty is UNC-Chapel Hill’s foundation and its cornerstone.

Wade Hargrove, an alumnus, a Raleigh lawyer and the trustee chair who will head this search, notes that public universities are challenged by economics, by debates over mission and curricula (can the liberal arts base remain vital?) and the needs of a multitude of constituencies.

No person has ever come to the job with more loyalty to the university than Holden Thorp, now 48, who will return to the faculty as a chemistry professor after five years as chancellor, following painful episodes that he might have handled better if he’d been more experienced as an administrator. Surely trustees now will aim for someone who has been a university president, or perhaps a person who has presided over a large private enterprise but has connections to academia.

Another lesson of the last two years is that a chancellor must hold a strong hand over the lucrative (but also expensive) athletics enterprise and not surrender it to boosters or to other administrators who may allow themselves to be manipulated by those boosters. The consequences of a loose rein there are being felt acutely in Chapel Hill right now.

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