The next chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill must have broad experience

February 25, 2013 

Choosing the next chancellor for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is much more than the ritual of periodic change in leadership. This hiring will decide not only who guides the university but also who will shape it and, in some respects, restore it.

Tom Ross, president of the University of North Carolina system, will select the next chancellor from finalists submitted to him by a committee appointed by UNC-CH trustees. His decision will come after two years of turmoil over academic and athletics scandals.

It’s hard to imagine any president facing a more pressurized environment. Some of that pressure is internal, from interest groups on campus wanting a leader who will suit their needs. (And there is a multitude of such groups.) From the outside, there are alums who think the big-time athletics drive that the university embraced at its peril is misplaced.

Indeed, in a recent survey of alumni, faculty, staff and students, only 22 percent cited athletics excellence as a top priority. That is a positive turn.

Ross will feel pressure, though, from sports boosters worried that a new chancellor will de-emphasize athletics. He must ignore that pressure. The university has some rebuilding to do in terms of its reputation. The next chancellor needs to understand that and have the courage to confront and correct problems. Pretending that these athletics and academic scandals are no big deal or that they will just blow over can’t be tolerated.

The spotlight

In the process of choosing finalists, members of the search committee have heard and will hear from specific groups of faculty members and student organizations that will say the next chancellor must be trained in academics first and foremost. They will hear from others that an outsider, a business person, is needed to manage the university more effectively. Other groups will demand an inside candidate familiar with the Chapel Hill “culture.” And still others will say a fresh perspective, another president from another school, is the clear path.

The attention on this choice is all the more intense because of the turmoil under departing Chancellor Holden Thorp, a man who gave great service to the university as a teacher and administrator for over 25 years. The high-profile and embarrassing problems in the football program, which brought sanctions for the first time in 50 years, and in the university’s respected academic program, with false courses in the African studies department, were by no means Thorp’s creation.

But the inexperienced chancellor had trouble seeing the potential range of the problems and then acting to resolve them quickly. With a superstructure of deans and faculty gifted with the security of job tenure, a university sometimes moves with the speed of a battleship, no matter who is in charge. When these crises arose, that speed wasn’t good enough.

Vital on the vitae

Let us hope trustees seek experience. This university needs a leader from within or without academia who has faced and weathered major challenges, either in a university or in business. Such experience forges confidence, something that a good leader has and can instill in others.

The average length of time in a president’s job varies depending upon whether institutions are public or private, but such a job tends to be held five to eight years. That makes sense, in a way, because the jobs tend to be rigorous and universities need fresh perspectives from time to time.

While university faculty members tend to believe that institutions need to be run with collaborative input (particularly from faculty), UNC-Chapel Hill has grown to an immense size counting undergraduate, graduate and professional schools, including a hospital complex. It demands a leader who can manage not necessarily in the style of a CEO (universities are sometimes characterized as “businesses,” but they are not), but certainly with decisiveness and the courage of conviction.

The UNC-CH chancellorship is one of the greatest jobs in American public higher education. It must be filled by someone who is honored to hold it and who will be recognized as someone who is both worthy and ready.

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