After two tumultuous years and the departure of UNC-Chapel Hill’s top administrative team, a new leader chosen this spring will have a big hand in determining whether the university’s path forward is rocky or smooth.
The man or woman chosen to lead the nation’s first public university to admit students will have to heal the damage from athletic, academic and fundraising scandals, while forging ahead with an ambitious to-do list at a time of rapid change in higher education. The next chancellor will have to confront a new political environment in Raleigh and answer questions from an accrediting agency, all while keeping an eye on recent athletic and academic reforms meant to keep trouble at bay.
Also on the radar is a multiyear fundraising campaign, which is expected to be a huge focus for the next chancellor, requiring travel and entertainment to woo donors.
On Friday, a search committee met for hours to discuss the field of candidates vying to succeed Holden Thorp, who said last September he would resign as chancellor at the end of the academic year. Last week, Thorp surprised the campus with the news that instead of returning to the chemistry classroom in Chapel Hill, he would start as provost at Washington University in St. Louis on July 1.
His impending departure has focused attention on who will move into his office in the historic South Building. The search appears to be on schedule, though little else is known about the committee’s deliberations. Early on, members were asked to sign a pledge of secrecy.
Wade Hargrove, trustee chairman and head of the search committee, said the heavy lifting is under way to pare the number of candidates.
“We do have a very deep and impressive pool,” he said, “and I think it speaks favorably about the standing which the university at Chapel Hill has among leaders of higher education.”
It takes a special breed to want to take on the role, Hargrove said.
“It really is a difficult job under the best circumstances. … We’re in a period of scarce resources; the need for accountability by universities has never been greater,” he said. “Hard questions are being asked and there’s certainly a need for extraordinary leadership ... not only at Chapel Hill but any university today.”
A push on athletics
Part of the chancellor’s challenge will be to gain momentum as an entire leadership team is hired. The university is also looking for a provost, who runs the day-to-day academic operation, and a chief fundraiser to replace Matt Kupec, who resigned after revelations that he misspent university money on personal travel with his girlfriend, the mother of a former UNC basketball star. The school’s top spokeswoman, Nancy Davis, retired this month after 30 years at the university.
Steven Bachenheimer, a professor of microbiology and immunology, said as the search for a new leader continues, faculty are concerned about the typical issues – funding to recruit and retain faculty, the possible loss of federal research dollars and how to pursue e-learning without sacrificing quality. But there is a difference this time around, he said.
Many faculty want to see the university take a national role in initiating change in Division I athletics, so that academics and athletics can better co-exist, he said.
“I think that’s really an important issue for a lot of people,” said Bachenheimer, one of three professors who conducted a special review of the academic fraud scandal and called for independent experts to review the school’s academic-athletic balance.
That conversation begins next month with the kickoff of a dialogue on campus led by Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, a prestigious national group. Bachenheimer hopes the effort could lead to a larger agreement among university presidents about how to deal with big-time athletics.
“I think we’re seeing more and more instances where presidents or chancellors are worried about the value of Division I athletics, to the extent that when things go wrong, it tarnishes the image,” he said. “A lot of faculty would agree that it’s time for presidents to seize control of Division I athletics from the NCAA. I think the NCAA plays way too big a role in it.”
Survey: Preserve academics
A recent survey of alumni, faculty, staff, students and others showed there is no appetite for compromising the university’s academic reputation following the internal and external investigations into a wide-ranging academic fraud scandal in the African and Afro-American Studies department. The online survey was conducted in November and December by the university for the search committee.
Preserving academic excellence was identified as a top priority for the next leader by 73 percent who answered the survey. Participants were asked to choose five areas from a list of 20 that the next chancellor should focus on. After academic excellence, the top picks were: retaining the best faculty and staff; remaining a leader in national higher education; maintaining affordability; and securing the financial resources necessary to sustain excellence.
Only 22 percent said preserving athletic excellence should be a major goal for the next leader, while 19.5 percent said understanding the role of athletics was among the top five characteristics needed in the next chancellor.
Mimi Chapman, professor of social work at the university, said an academic background is necessary but not enough. It will take someone with a thick skin who can handle the inevitable crises.
“If you took any organization, it’s hard to imagine that there aren’t skeletons to be uncovered everywhere,” she said. “Hopefully, there are no more at UNC. It just seems like it is part of the nature of the beast that we have big complex organizations, that there is no way to know everything that’s going on every place. You have to do your best learning about what kind of systems to put in place to make people accountable, and then you have to solve problems as they come up.”
A question of salary
In a letter, Doug Dibbert, president of UNC-CH’s General Alumni Association, advised the search committee to anticipate the unknown challenges the next chancellor will confront. He said former Chancellor James Moeser had told the last search committee that the main issues for his successor would be enrollment growth, recruiting new faculty, competition for research funding and finding money for new programs.
None of those turned out to be front and center for Thorp, who instead faced an 18 percent state budget cut in 2011-12 and an NCAA investigation into athletics, plus the ensuing academic fraud inquiries.
Dibbert also cautioned the panel not to get caught up in the higher education arms race with leaders who demand big salaries. The university has a special relationship with the state, as evidenced by generous taxpayer support, equivalent to the revenue from a $10 billion endowment, Dibbert reminded.
“Anyone you might wish to consider who insists that Carolina match or better their current $700,000 or more salary should be dismissed from further consideration because that expectation alone confirms that they don’t understand our university,” Dibbert wrote. “They would not be a good fit for our campus. Further, what is viewed by the public as an excessive compensation package would likely jeopardize the generous state support we have enjoyed for many, many years.”
The salary issue will certainly come up.
N.C. State University Chancellor Randy Woodson last month got a 14.6 percent raise, a $112,630 “retention payment” and a retirement savings plan equal to 10 percent of his salary after he was rumored to be a finalist for the University of Florida presidency.
Woodson’s annual salary is now $495,000; Thorp’s is $432,600.
Hargrove said the committee’s search consultant, Bill Funk, has told them that it is harder to find leaders who want a university president’s job.
“What we’re hearing is that provosts in many institutions are saying, ‘No, I don’t want to move up. These jobs are too demanding, they’re too complicated, … I don’t need that grief in my life,’ ” Hargrove said.
Gretchen Bataille, senior vice president of the American Council on Education’s division of leadership and lifelong learning, said about 40 percent of college presidents are former provosts. But fewer want the top post now, because they’ve seen the president’s role up close, she said.
The good news is that Thorp has put into place changes meant to prevent and detect future academic fraud, Bataille said. The next leader will have to pay attention and be transparent but can also start anew.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for someone to say, ‘I can sort of put things back right again.’ ”