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Barnett: Folt off to a promising start as UNC chancellor

September 21, 2013 

Carol Folt, now nearly three months into her job as chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is impressing people inside and outside of the Carolina community with her engaging personality, her diplomatic skills and her eagerness to learn.

Richard Stevens, the former Wake County state senator and former chairman of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees, recently introduced the new chancellor before she spoke to a meeting of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.

After the meeting, Stevens said, he was approached by people who delivered strong reviews of the Carol Folt Show.

“Two dozen or more people came up to me and said how impressed they were,” he said, adding, as only a Tar Heel can, “and some of them were (N.C.) State people.”

Stevens was later at a Raleigh party of some 150 UNC supporters where Folt spoke. “She took questions and was extremely articulate and extremely forthcoming,” he said, indicating that she didn’t downplay or dodge questions about UNC’s problems with athletics.

Indeed, if Stevens is an indicator, Folt has given UNC a jolt.

“She’s a ball of fire,” he said. “I’ve heard that term more than once.”

Such strong early assessments are good news for UNC. Folt sounds like what her predecessor Holden Thorp was supposed to be: an extremely bright professor-turned-administrator who could create a friendly yet ambitious climate on campus.

Early in his tenure, Thorp got waylaid by the many-headed monster of big-time athletics. At one point, he embraced football coach Butch Davis, only to be ensnared by the academic and athletic issues that emerged from the program.

Thorp resigned to become provost at Washington University in St. Louis, an elite academic school where sports agents are not trolling for future NFL draft picks. Into the vacuum he left came Folt, an aquatic biologist whose experience at the top was a year as the interim president of Dartmouth College.

Folt, UNC’s first female chancellor, was greeted in Chapel Hill by doubts about her suitability. Her experience was with a private school, not a big state school. Though a sports fan, she cheered for Ivy League players who excelled at Olympic sports. Was she ready to lead a school with a huge fan base and programs that claimed the likes of Lawrence Taylor, Julius Peppers, Michael Jordan and Vince Carter?

And for those who think UNC has lost its way by letting athletics run its own empire while the academic side slipped into complacency, the question was, was Folt willing to knock heads together and let some roll?

That question remains open, and that’s a good sign. Folt entered a situation in which the temptation would be to make changes fast and assert authority briskly. Instead, she’s taken a softer, smarter approach.

She has gone on a “listening tour” to learn what people do at the university and to get a sense of the school’s long history and special relationship with the state’s people. She’s not making announcements and pronouncements. She’s taking her time and taking notes.

And she’s showing a leadership style that seeks to inspire rather than castigate. In a meeting last week with editors, editorial writers and reporters at The News & Observer, she described herself as a consensus builder.

She said, “You get the best out of people when they are sharing an aspiration.”

That’s not to say she’s not making it clear who is in charge. Wade Smith, the prominent Raleigh defense lawyer and a former head of the UNC Alumni Association, said he has not met Folt, but he has been impressed by what he has heard. “Everything I hear about her is that she’s tough and strong and has a lot backbone and she’s the right person for the job,” he said.

Smith said Folt has been shrewd to devote her first months to assessing where she is, who people are and what she must do. He referred to a quote from Abe Lincoln: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”

When that ax is ready, Folt will need to take it to the root of problems with athletics that have led to academic fraud, problems with sports agents, a citation from the NCAA and an SBI investigation.

When her listening is done, Folt said she will be ready to act at a school that in recent years has been reluctant to admit or address some core issues.

“Let’s not be afraid to confront problems,” she said.

Asked whether she has spoken with football coach Larry Fedora about what he knew about problems with Oklahoma State’s football program when he was there – problems revealed by a special Sports Illustrated report – she said she hadn’t. Administrators who spoke with Fedora, however, told her the coach said he was not involved, she said. “I take people at their word,” she said.

And people should take her at hers. “You do what you say you’re going to do,” she said.

What she’s doing is learning, watching and, as Lincoln suggested, honing her edge now to do what she might have to do later.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com.

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