UNC Board of Trustees approves “outspoken conservative” voice as new provost

By: - December 10, 2021 7:07 am

Chris Clemens will serve as the next executive vice chancellor and provost. (Photo: Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Chris Clemens will serve as the next executive vice chancellor and provost. (Photo: Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees approved Chris Clemens, a senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, as the university’s new executive vice chancellor and provost after a special meeting held largely in closed session Thursday.

Though the vote was in the brief open session portion of Thursday’s meeting, the board took the unusual step of not publicly disclosing what they were voting on or using any names or titles. Instead, they voted on three “action items” that were not publicly described and then abruptly adjourned after the vote.

After fielding questions from reporters throughout the day, UNC-Chapel Hill media relations released a letter from Chancellor Guskiewicz making the announcement shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday.

“The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees approved the Chancellor’s recommendation to appoint Dr. Chris Clemens as executive vice chancellor and provost of the University,” UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees Chair Dave Boliek said in a statement. “We’re excited about the University’s momentum moving into the new year and about the energy Dr. Clemens will bring to the provost’s office.”

UNC-Chapel Hill describes the provost as the chief academic officer and chief operating officer of the university, with oversight responsibilities for budget and planning.

In a prepared statement released by the university, Clemens said he was honored to serve “at a pivotal time for the university.”

“The challenges and disruptions we have suffered are substantial, but I believe they also offer opportunities to reflect on our core mission to students, to promote the public good, and to put our research and scholarship to work in innovative ways that serve the people of North Carolina. I look forward to working alongside my colleagues, campus leadership, the UNC system, and our public stakeholders in pursuit of our common goals.”

An “outspoken conservative”

Clemens has been at the center of controversy over the creation of  a program at Chapel Hill called the “Program in Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse,” which Clemens and others described as a “conservative center” going back to its inception in 2017.  Clemens has since denied the program will be explicitly conservative.

Clemens has described himself as “among the most outspoken conservative members of the Arts & Sciences faculty at UNC for many years, sponsoring  the college Republicans, Carolina Review [UNC’s self-described ‘conservative & libertarian voice’] and several other student organizations.”

Some faculty, staff and board members said they believe that played a role in his choice as the school’s next provost.

Two UNC Board of Trustees members and one member of the search committee confirmed to Policy Watch that Clemens’ conservative credentials made him an attractive choice for the Board of Trustees and UNC Board of Governors with close ties to the Republican majority in the North Carolina General Assembly.

Both trustees asked not to be identified so that they could discuss a confidential personnel process.

“No one would think that we would even be having a conversation about any faculty member or applicant who has bragged about their liberal views and ties to liberal political organizations,” said one member of the Board of Trustees.

“That would be absolutely disqualifying for a vote that had to come from the Board of Trustees and the people who appoint those board members at the UNC Board of Governors and the General Assembly level. But a candidate who calls himself one of the most outspoken conservative voices on campus and is part of putting together a program that he himself has described as conservative? That is a winning resume for a leadership position at UNC and in the UNC System right now, with the leadership we are seeing.”

Student body president Lamar Richards

Lamar Richards, the student representative on the board, voted “no” on the first, unnamed action item during Thursday’s meeting and abstained from a vote on action items two and three as a package. All other present members of the board voted “yes.”

Outide political pressure?

The choice to approve Clemens came after Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty, wrote an op-ed  in the Daily Tar Heel campus newspaper last month saying Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz was facing political pressure over the choice of a new provost after Bob Blouin announced he would step down from the position earlier this year.

In her op-ed, Chapman wrote that the issue isn’t the candidates themselves but whether the chancellor and search committee were given the latitude to choose the person who will take this important role on campus.

“Based on the information that is being relayed to me by multiple sources, our trustees and the UNC System are dictating his choices to the point that he really has none to make,” Chapman wrote.

“Over many months, the provost search committee has spent hours with a search firm going through dossiers from applicants across the country,” Chapman wrote. “That hard-working group brought in a slate of candidates, each of whom met with multiple campus constituencies. The search committee then made their recommendations to the Chancellor. We will all need to think carefully before saying yes to participation on an upper-level search at UNC unless we are comfortable with our dedication to a meaningful process being only for show.”

Mimi Chapman UNC-Chapel Hill’s faculty chairperson

This particular process appears to endanger the chancellor’s autonomy and the concept of shared governance with faculty and staff, Chapman wrote.

“In any nonprofit organization, boards choose the CEO, and the CEO chooses their team through search processes that should be transparent to all,” Chapman wrote. “The Chancellor should make the choice of who is his second in command after receiving good advice from all rightfully involved. For me, I stand willing to support and work with whomever the Chancellor chooses as long as I know that it was his choice, freely made.”

In an interview Thursday, Chapman said she has worked with Clemens and has no problem with him. If the search committee vetted him and the chancellor put his name forward because he believed he was the best candidate, then his politics shouldn’t be part of the discussion, Chapman said.

“His politics should not be a deciding factor in this for anybody,” Chapman said. “For the BOT this should be about making the best, unimpeded choice and the faculty and students being able to have faith that their time when they serve on search committees is valuable and these decisions aren’t being made by people who did not review all the dossiers and interview all the candidates.”

“My understanding is a number of candidates were forwarded by the search committee,” Chapman said. “Provided that Chris was one of them, he should be equally considered as everybody else should be. I may have personal opinions about who the best choice would be. My main concern is about how that choice is being made and who is behind the actual choice.”

Sources with knowledge of the process told her that extra external pressure was brought to bear, Chapman said.

“What I am hearing is both at the BOT level and at the system level, there has been a very clear message sent to the chancellor about who he should choose,” Chapman said. “And there would be an either/or situation. Either you do what we want or we throw the whole system into chaos, either by voting ‘no’ on the candidate the chancellor put forward or by potentially getting rid of the chancellor.”

The search committee included three trustees, Chapman said, so they should have had plenty of opportunities to voice their opinions in the process. Any conversations or pressure outside or beyond that process is inappropriate, she said.

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz

“What I don’t want is for the trustees or the Board of Governors, the president of the system or members of the legislature to be essentially holding the campus hostage,” Chapman said.

Guskiewicz made no public comment on the process before the late Thursday announcement, but in his letter to the community he praised Clemens.

“I’ve known Chris for nearly 15 years and have worked closely with him on a range of ambitious projects to enhance the academic excellence of Carolina,” Guskiewicz said in the message. “I know he’ll do an outstanding job as our next chief academic officer.”

Marty Kotis, a former member of the UNC Board of Governors and current member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, said Guskiewicz told the trustees Clemens was his choice and that he had confidence in him in the position.

Trustee Marty Kotis

“I think there’s this repeated pattern of Professor Chapman saying that there are these conspiracies that turn out later not to be true,” Kotis said. “She said that we were going to get rid of the chancellor, and that ended up not happening. Then when it doesn’t happen, she says that’s because they prevented it. Well, that’s fine if you don’t have to prove any of this. But I was not contacted or pressured by anyone in the General Assembly on this or the Board of Governors and I don’t know anybody who was or even heard of anything like that happening. The chancellor says this was his choice. I think we can trust him.”

Clemens’ conservative bona fides are incidental to his long service as a faculty member and senior associate dean, Kotis said.

“I think when you see Republicans or conservatives chosen for these positions, these big leadership positions at the universities, it only stands out because most of those positions are held by Democrats,” Kotis said.

The pendulum swings to the right

That is something system leadership seems to be actively working to change.

In February Darrel Allison was named chancellor at Fayetteville State University. Allison had no leadership experience in higher education. Trustees at the school said his resume was lighter than most candidates for the job and they wouldn’t have placed him in the top five. But he was a member of the UNC Board of Governors until stepping down to pursue the chancellor’s position and a lobbyist for conservative causes with strong ties to the Republican majority in the General Assembly. Ultimately, trustees said, it was obvious he would be the choice of UNC System President Peter Hans, and so his name was added to the slate of candidates sent to him.

A member of the UNC Board of Governors giving up his seat to join a job search ultimately overseen by his former board colleagues and the system president he helped elect was controversial. It set what even some board of governors members warned could be a worrisome precedent of political connections and affiliations trumping actual credentials.

Even before officially taking the helm as president of the UNC System last year, Hans had pushed for a change in the chancellor search process. The change, ultimately approved by the board, allows him to bypass individual boards of trustees and the traditional search process to insert his own chosen candidates into the list of finalists in chancellor searches. The effect: more decision making power concentrated into the hands of political appointees.

Several board members expressed their concern with the change, but it was ultimately approved by the board.

Top university leadership positions aren’t the only ones for which conservative credentials — or adherence to conservative principles — have become important.

UNC law professor Eric Muller

In June, Policy Watch reported Eric Muller, a renowned law professor, would not be reappointed to the governing board of the UNC Press, despite having been unanimously re-elected to lead the board.

Sources at the UNC System level said that was because Muller had been outspoken on the dubious legality of the university’s deal with the Sons of Confederate Veterans over the toppled Silent Sam Confederate monument. The UNC Board of Governors’ University Governance committee simply did not bring his reappointment to a vote and it was communicated to Muller that the reappointment would not move forward. Though several UNC Board of Governors members suggested Muller had served too long on the board, they reappointed other members who had served as long.

Muller was also vocal about a UNC Board of Trustees committee declining to hold a vote on tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist chosen to be the Knight Chair Professor of Race and Investigative Journalism at Chapel Hill’s journalism school.

Sources close to that process told Policy Watch that objections to Hannah-Jones’s work from conservatives in the UNC System and powerful conservative alumni led to her approval being held up for an extended period. National headlines, protests and pressure from students, faculty, staff and alumni ultimately forced a vote on Hannah-Jones’s tenure. In the wake of the controversy and what it revealed about UNC-Chapel Hill and the UNC System, Hannah-Jones ultimately chose to go to Howard University instead.

Both the Muller and Hannah-Jones cases were illustrative of a larger trend in the UNC System by which objections from conservatives can be enough to scuttle an appointment or hire. Conversely, the Allison appointment suggested conservative credentials and connections could help assure success.

Late Thursday, a member of the UNC Board of Governors told Policy Watch none of that should come as a surprise.

The member asked not to be identified so that they could speak openly about various personnel cases without running afoul of board rules.

“When Democrats ran the system, they had decades of preferring candidates for everything who were progressive or liberal,” the board member said. “Now it’s Republicans in charge and the pendulum has swung the other way. You’re seeing conservative leadership. There’s a course correction that’s being made.”

“Why would it be a surprise that the people who are steering the system right now have a particular vision and particular principles, and they are choosing people who share that vision and those principles?” the member said. “I don’t think anything could be less surprising than that.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.