Hiring the Next Carolina Provost – Order Restored or Chaos Continued?

UNC Chapel Hill leaders need to get a current hiring decision right. 

Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Robert A. Blouin announced that he will step down from his position later this year. The Provost is the chief academic officer and making sure the person in that position has the ability to create a trusting relationship with both the faculty and staff is critical. In June, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz appointed a search committee to help select the next executive vice chancellor and provost. He extended an invitation to two members of the Board of Trustees (BOT) to join that committee. At some point another BOT member was added. Three search committee members who are trustees means that the BOT has had ample opportunity to weigh in on the search through a process with which all members of the campus community are familiar.

The Committee, the Chancellor, and multiple other faculty, staff, and student groups have now interviewed a range of candidates. Chancellor Guskiewicz has received feedback from the search committee and heard perspectives from both inside and outside the university. We urge Chancellor Guskiewicz to select the candidate that is the best qualified and will move the university forward in concert with the strategic plan and not undermine the trust of the campus community.

Carolina does not need more drama or outside meddling. We need to be able to trust that the search processes are above board and that the Chancellor is free to make his own decision. Chancellor Guskiewicz should choose his own team without concern of repercussions from the UNC System President, the UNC BOG, or the UNC-CH BOT.

Photo credit: Visual Stories by Micheile on Unsplash

Chapel Hill Board of Trustees Partially Restores Speaking Time to Campus Leaders

The UNC Chapel Hill Faculty Chair, President of the Graduate and Professional Student Government, and Employee Forum Chair have historically been invited to speak at every UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting.  At least one of these individuals, and usually all three, spoke at every BOT meeting until May of 2021 when the Board of Trustees stopped inviting them. It was at the May meeting that Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman delivered pointed remarks about the board’s failure to approve tenure for Ms. Nikole Hannah-Jones.  (Follow this link to see the remarks that Chair Mimi Chapman delivered in May.) One reason given for not extending these invitations was that the BOT “did not want to be lectured”.  

The BOT’s refusal to hear from key representatives of the university it is duty bound to serve raised concern and alarm all over campus. Silencing these important voices was not acceptable. After several months of no action, the BOT finally agreed to once again extend speaking invitations to these three leaders.  

We consider it progress that the BOT listened and these leaders are invited back to speak. However; we are concerned about the changed speaking rules.  The BOT will only extend invitations to these leaders to speak on a rotational basis.  No longer will all three groups be invited to speak at every meeting.  Instead, each leader will only be invited to speak at every third meeting.  Since the bylaws allow for six BOT meetings per year, that means that each of these important leaders can only address the BOT twice per year! Given all that is happening at the university, that is not sufficient.  

We do not understand why the BOT is  taking away 2/3rds of the speaking time from these important leaders.  They should want to hear from the people they represent more often than twice per year.  We urge them to return to the original process that gave important campus leaders time to address them at every meeting.  

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UNC-CH Trustees are Getting Involved in Who Attends and Who Teaches at the University

On Thursday, November 4, 2021, the UNC Board of Trustees voted on measures that could (1) extend their influence and involvement in the admissions process and (2) involve themselves into lower level hiring decisions — people two to three levels below the chancellor or vice chancellor levels.

Regarding admissions acceptance, prior to Thursday’s meeting, the Coalition learned of a proposed move to transfer the handling of admissions acceptance appeals away from the Provost office to the Board of Trustees. There is high demand for admission to Carolina.  In 2020 UNC-Chapel Hill received 44,379 first-year applications. The overall acceptance rate was 24 percent – 48 percent for North Carolina applicants and 14 percent for out-of-state applicants.  The candidate pool for Carolina is always full of very well-qualified, highly accomplished, engaged and talented applicants.  Limited space and a 24 percent acceptance rate mean many well-qualified applicants are not accepted.  When this happens, parents and applicants may decide to submit an appeal to see if anything can be done to reverse the acceptance decision.  In the past these appeals have been managed by the Provost office in a fair, non-partisan way.  While we are sure that the Board of Trustees would have the best intentions, we do not understand the reasoning behind their wanting to insert themselves in the applicant appeals process. Including the Board of Trustees in the process invites appeals from those who expect favorable treatment for whatever reason. 

UNC System President Peter Hans discouraged the trustees from granting themselves full power to have the final say on an individual admissions case that’s being appealed. He requested that they further study and discuss what such authority would look like. So, at the meeting, the Board of Trustees removed language from their resolution that specifically references applicant appeals, but still enabled them to “…create any number of committees… to make recommendations to the Board of Trustees and to establish panels to hear and decide certain appeals on behalf of the Board of Trustees.” We believe this is just another way, and possible loophole, to insert themselves in the admissions appeal process.  We hope we are wrong and will be watching closely.

As for involving themselves in lower level hires, the Board of Trustees adopted a resolution stating that the authority of Tier II hires “is delegated by the Board of Governors to the chancellors and the respective Boards of Trustees of the constituent institutions.” Tier II hires include Senior Associate Deans that oversee different parts of the College of Arts and Sciences, Associate Deans for Research in the respective schools and many others. The Chancellor often delegates this authority to deans so that they can choose their own leadership teams.  So, in addition to this being a huge administrative burden for the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees to be involved in, it potentially undermines a dean’s ability to create their vision for a particular school. The prior process for Tier II hires at Carolina was handled by the University Chancellor or a delegate of the Chancellor. Now it seems that the Board of Trustees will insert themselves in lower level hiring decisions going forward.  This inserts more administrative red tape into the process and, perhaps, increases administrative cost.  The resolution appears to be a solution looking for a problem.  We hope this will not lead to political purges or political hires and will be monitoring to shine a light on any issues that arise.

At The Coalition for Carolina we are rededicating ourselves to the University’s promise of Lux Libertas—light and liberty—and the principles of open inquiry, free speech, equity and inclusion. We urge you to join us in our very important mission: To protect the State of North Carolina’s most valuable asset: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. If you agree that neither the Board of Governors nor the Board of Trustees should be involved in matters of college acceptance, lower level faculty hires,  or any number of issues that amount to overreach, please join our nonpartisan coalition.  Share your thoughts, send your feedback to [email protected], or donate to ensure that we can shine as bright a light as possible on these issues in real time.  We want to reach as many people who love our University as possible. 

We will continue to be vigilant and do what we can to protect the University we love.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Buck Goldstein: The Partnership is Broken

In North Carolina, the relationship between the flagship public university and the state seems to be broken and getting worse. And that’s despite the good intentions of the chancellor, the chair of the faculty, and the leader of the Board of Trustees.

Trust is at the foundation of any healthy relationship, whether it’s a marriage, a business partnership, or a sprawling university. Partners must share a vision and trust one another to carry it out. Jonathan Cole, the former provost at Columbia, describes the relationship between a university and the government as “an uneasy compact,” sustained by tacit agreements and mutual understanding. “When trust breaks down, the other values and all that is built on them are in peril.”

In Our Higher Calling, the book I wrote with UNC’s former Chancellor Holden Thorp, we summarized Cole’s concept as a partnership with the public. In exchange for educating a highly competitive workforce and leading the discovery of new knowledge, academic communities will be funded and allowed to run as a meritocracy, with the freedom to both explore and occasionally espouse unpopular ideas. Recognizing that education and discovery are messy enterprises, universities get a freer hand than just about any public entity to run their own affairs. When the trust level is high, this tradeoff works well for both sides. When the trust level is low, it becomes a recipe for disaster.

I’ve witnessed that disturbing spiral at Carolina.  I teach a class on higher education with the current chancellor, and I’m well acquainted with many former and current trustees, some of whom were college classmates. I’ve also been a member of the faculty for seventeen years. The recent controversy over the failed hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones in the School of Journalism and Media brought worldwide attention to the dysfunction that’s been building for at least a decade between the University and its governing bodies. Both internal and external forces have contributed to the erosion of trust, threatening a partnership that has benefitted North Carolina since 1789.

The internal forces begin with the partners themselves. Faculty, for the most part, do not recognize that academic freedom and shared governance come at a price. Students and their parents expect job-ready graduates who are also equipped to be thoughtful and productive citizens. They expect research that drives the economy and supports a better quality of life for citizens of the state and beyond.

At the same time, trustees are skeptical about the ability of academics — most of whom have little training in business, finance, or politics — to run an institution as massive and complex as a modern research university. There aren’t many multi-billion-dollar enterprises run on consensus-oriented shared governance models, and many trustees would like to see a more top-down approach that prioritizes action over a discussion. One trustee, when asked how long it takes to understand the university’s decision-making process, replied, “I hope I live that long.”

For many years, an environment of relative trust was enough to reconcile those different worldviews. So long as Carolina continued to win basketball games and turn out loyal graduates, there wasn’t much soul-searching about its relationship to the life of the state. Battles were fought over the budget, with trustees asserting an increasing interest in governance in the interest of maintaining state funding. When cultural issues such as the removal of a Confederate statue from campus entered the debate, public trust declined, and the University faced greater scrutiny from lawmakers and governing officials. At the same time, these same hot-button issues galvanized large segments of the faculty who had previously paid little attention to governance structures outside their own department or field. Faculty outspokenness led to deepening frustration among trustees, who saw high-profile stands on political issues causing unnecessary friction with legislators and donors.
 
Chancellors, like institutional leaders across our society, have been caught in the middle, trying to forge compromises that satisfy almost no one. Trustees think the chancellor should be tougher on the faculty, forgetting that the chancellor is a member of the faculty. And fellow academics think the chancellor should stand up to the powers that be, forgetting that chancellors are selected and removed by governing boards. It’s not surprising, then, that turnover in these roles is on the rise across the country. Carolina has had three Chancellors in the last decade.

External factors also play a role. Public support for all institutions has been eroding for decades, a process accelerated by a relentless media culture. Critics are asking whether a college degree is worth it amid a long-term rise in tuition and student debt. (It should be noted that tuition at UNC has remained flat for the last five years.) Calls for greater efficiency and reform come from parents, as well as lawmakers. And even more fundamentally, conservative politicians believe colleges and universities lack viewpoint diversity and turn pliable young people into eager liberals.

The ongoing racial reckoning in America and the controversy over critical race theory have added considerable fuel to the fire. And a significant portion of the faculty now question some of the foundational academic principles that underpin the partnership with the public, rejecting ideals like meritocracy and even elements of free speech as harmful to marginalized members of the community.

Social media and open meeting laws also contribute to an environment where ideas and policies are litigated on screens, not around a conference table. After a recent off-the-record seminar on university governance, a faculty leader said it was a relief to have an honest conversation about difficult issues without worrying she would say something clumsy or imprecise that could be vilified by her critics or lead to litigation. She noted that public meetings are now highly scripted affairs, offering little opportunity for genuine engagement between faculty and trustees.

All of this has the makings of a genuine if slow-moving crisis. But, perhaps naively, I think there are steps that can restore at least some of the trust that is essential to effective shared governance. The parties need to be willing to pick up the phone, meet for lunch and otherwise talk instead of lobbing public statements at one another. Trust is built person-to-person, not Tweet-to-retweet. Trustees should be encouraged to spend time visiting classes and research labs to see the work firsthand, not just hear about it in carefully curated presentations. Faculty need to break bread with trustees and other citizens of the state. Administrators must be transparent and uphold the foundational principles of the university even when their advisors, especially their lawyers, counsel otherwise.

The partnership itself needs to be made more explicit with clear, definable expectations for all parties. A current effort by the Board of Trustees to clarify decision-making authority will, at the very least, focus the conversation and perhaps avoid the kind of micro-managing that handcuffs multi-billion-dollar enterprises. Focusing the conversation on actual performance, instead of the front-page issue of the day, would be great for all involved. Because that’s the irony of this moment in university history — for all the angst and distrust, Carolina is performing its core roles remarkably well. Record enrollment, record research funding, a fundraising campaign that stayed on track even through the whipsaw economy of Covid. On the fundamentals, UNC has rarely been stronger.

That won’t continue if the rift between the campus and the state grows ever wider. The University’s situation must not be sugar-coated. It is serious, and events have converged to place a spotlight on how leadership responds. Any effective way forward has to begin with honesty about where we are now, and that’s a very bad spot.  
Buck Goldstein is Professor of the Practice in the School of Education and University Entrepreneur In Residence at UNC Chapel Hill. 

Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash 

What the hell is going on in Chapel Hill?

Good question.

It’s a question that alumni, parents, and students across the state and country are asking today. The answer is as clear as mud: Some great things. And some not-so-great things.

First the good stuff: The University of North Carolina is one of the greatest universities in the world. We have the best faculty that we have ever had. We have an outstanding leader as our chancellor. We boast top programs and schools including: Nursing, Pharmacy, Business, History, Journalism, Sociology, Social Work, Public Health, Political Science, and English, among many others. UNC is near the top of Princeton Review’s list of best value colleges and topped the Kiplinger’s Magazine ranking for value for the past 18 years. Enrollment is up. Our student body is increasingly diverse and, in Chapel Hill, we are serious about equity and inclusion. Our sports teams continue to be champions.

So, what’s the problem?

Things are not right in Blue Heaven.

There. We said it. If we can’t be honest with ourselves, how can we be honest with anyone?

Sure, we’re still the envy of the nation—one of the very best public universities. We are still proudly the University of the People. We’re a world-class research university. We’re the key economic driver for the state. But this shining Light on the Hill is no longer leading itself. It’s being led, or should we say controlled, by a group of partisan politicians who have overtaken our institutions’ governing bodies. A group that claims to have Carolina’s best interests at heart. But do they? Their recent actions scream, “No!” while shunning the principles of transparency and shared governance that this university was built on.

How can we continue to be a beacon of academic excellence, when we are not even in charge of the decisions that take place on our own campus? Recently, there have been a series of embarrassing episodes—the bungling of Silent Sam, the forced Fall 2020 Covid debacle of opening then closing the campus, still no vaccine mandate as the Delta variant surges, and the utter disregard for faculty tenure determinations. Decisions that shape the future of Carolina should be made in Chapel Hill. Instead, they are being made covertly and controlled 28 miles away. In a place called Raleigh.

Is there anything we can do about it? We certainly think so. That’s why we’re interrupting your leisurely read of the Carolina Alumni Review today. Because we need you to help us right the ship at UNC.

Who are we?

We’re The Coalition for Carolina. A bipartisan group of concerned alumni, faculty, staff, students, and allies of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We have come together to support and defend the University of the People and its independence from partisan interference. We are rededicating ourselves to the University’s promise of Lux Libertas—light and liberty—and the principles of open inquiry, free speech, equity, and inclusion. We urge you to join us in our very important mission: To protect the State of North Carolina’s most valuable asset: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

We all love Carolina.

Join us at CoalitionForCarolina.org. If there are enough of us in this Coalition, we can make a difference. We need to do everything in our power to return autonomy to Chapel Hill and to ensure that our kids have the same experience that we did at UNC.

One more thing: We promise that the next time we use the word hell in a headline, it will be “Go to hell, Duke.”

Photo credit: Scenes from a rainy day on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on on June 26, 2018. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)  https://uncnews.unc.edu/2018/09/27/unc-chapel-hill-announces-2-million-initiative-to-help-students-and-families-affected-by-hurricane-florence/