As the UNC System’s Board of Governors mulls further changes to its chancellor search process, it is tackling the challenges of hiring and retaining chancellors, which has become more difficult.
“The college chancellor has no true analogue in the private sector,” board member David Powers, chairman of the Committee on Strategic Initiatives, said. “The number of constituencies and stakeholders involved, the high visibility of decision-making and the need to execute on a complex, three part mission of education, research and service make for a uniquely challenging role.”
The board of governors has itself sometimes publicly clashed with university chancellors in the last few years, memorably during the controversy over the Silent Sam Confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill. The board’s conflict with former Chancellor Carol Folt exploded publicly shortly before she resigned.
The board has also faced a series of controversies over chancellor searches, including board members’ own actions during chancellor searches being condemned by system leadership, scuttled searches and one of the board’s own members jumping into a search and being chosen despite his not being one of the top choices of the university’s trustees. More recent changes to the process, concentrating more decision making power into the hands of UNC System President Peter Hans, have been questioned and criticized by board members themselves.
For years the board has discussed hiring chancellors with varied levels and types of experience — including some with no higher education background, leaders from the military and the business world, as well as politicians. That has led critics to worry the board will begin installing chancellors and system presidents whose primary qualifications are political. That has already happened in other states, the most recent example being the recent naming of Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) as president of the University of Florida’s flagship campus.
During Wednesday’s panel discussion, moderated by new PBS TV CEO David Crabtree, the longest-serving chancellors in the UNC System said they wished they had known more about how complex and demanding the job can be — and how they would have to learn to navigate its political waters.
A difficult job
Chancellor Randy Woodson has led NC State since 2010. When he was first interviewed for the job by former UNC System President Erskine Bowles, Woodson said, he knew a lot about the university and about higher education, but there was more to learn.
“I would like to have known more about the governance of the system,” Woodson said. “There are 50 different states, 50 different public university systems, all managed entirely differently. And I would have liked to have understood the governance of the UNC System, how our institutions fit into it, what the board of the board of governors was and the role of the trustees.”
Earlier this month Gov. Roy Cooper created through executive order a commission to study just that. The move was inspired by years of political controversies involving the board of governors, which is made up of political appointees of the majority party in the state legislature. Though led by the bipartisan pair of former UNC System presidents, the commission has already been dismissed as overtly political by state House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), who said the legislature isn’t interested in suggestions from the Democratic governor or the commission he’s appointing to study UNC System governance.
Beyond the politics, several of the chancellors said, navigating competing interests at the university level itself can be one of the biggest challenges of the job.
Harold Martin, who leads NC A&T, the state and the nation’s largest historically Black college or university, said the role of chancellor is unique in a way that is difficult to explain to anyone from any background who has not experienced it.
“Unlike any business that many in this room may have engaged in, as the chancellor or president of a university you have many bosses,” Martin said.
“We have our own constituents — alums, faculty, staff and the incredible students we serve,” Martin said.
There’s an assumption that all those people want the best for the university, Martin said, but that doesn’t mean they’ll all agree on what that is or how to get there.
Balancing those sometimes competing and clashing interests makes each chancellor something like a combination of CEO and a big city mayor, Woodson said — though with more limited powers.
Sheri Everts, chancellor of Appalachian State, agreed. “Those competing factions, or those multiple constituencies, do expect good things,” Everts said. “They do want us totally focused on student success and I think that’s one of the things we all share.”
Everts has felt the sting of competing constituencies in her tenure at Appalachian State. In 2020, faculty members on her campus passed a rare vote of “no confidence” in her leadership. The vote stemmed primarily from the school’s decision to reopen to in-person instruction and on-campus living during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, faculty have for years expressed frustration at what they call a top-down method of leadership and spotty, often strained communication from Everts.
North Carolina directly funds higher education in a much more substantial way than many states, Woodson said. But with that comes expectations from the public and state government for which chancellors need to be ready.
“For me, I think it helps to have experience in the public realm,” Woodson said. “Understanding public support, understanding the General Assembly and how they understand higher education, getting a sense of what are the values of the state around higher education.”
Athletics as “the front porch”
Several chancellors on the panel said understanding the state’s values around higher education also means embracing the importance of college sports — both to the public and to the university.
“Athletics is the front porch to the university,” UNC Pembroke Chancellor Robin Cummings said. “It will often get people into your house by coming through athletics.”
Though UNC-Pembroke is a Division II school whose sports teams don’t get as much public attention as NC State or UNC-Chapel Hill, he said athletics are still a driver of both enrollment and a bond among students, alumni and the community.
Everts agreed, sharing that App State has seen a 25% bump in applications she believes is traceable to putting applications on the stadium and gym seats on game days.
Woodson said the passion generated by athletic programs is a powerful and positive — though it can lead to arguments over game strategy and even the colors teams wear for certain games. It’s important not to be too consumed by minutiae, he said.
Schools with prominent athletic programs need close oversight of those programs, Martin said. As such a public face of the university they have to be carefully managed and can be costly to maintain.
“Athletics is becoming even more complex,” Martin said. “In addition to the demand for winning…the revenue that’s necessary to support athletics — athletics coaching salaries, scholarships, facilities, upfit, maintenance…it’s very complex and increasingly complex.”
That’s not always appreciated by the public or all of the university’s constituencies, he said.
“At the end of the day, the fan doesn’t see anything but Ls and Ws,” he said.
Strong teams, strong commitments
More important than the teams on the field are the teams that support school leadership, the chancellors all said — which makes good hiring and delegating essential skills for any chancellor.
“It’s a complex job and you have to have a good team,” Woodson said.
“I know there’s a tendency to think about our roles as a chief executive officer, but we don’t have the ability to move the organization the way a chief executive can,” he said. “You need to have a very strong team across the spectrum of responsibilities.”
Good candidates for chancellor roles should have demonstrated leadership of very complex organizations, Cummings said. That means delegation and the ability to put the job down at the end of the day as easily as you pick it up in the morning.
For schools like UNC-Pembroke, a traditionally minority-serving institution, it also means a sensitivity to culture and commitment to mission that has to exist across the leadership team.
“You have to have a purpose and you have to have a mission,” Cummings said.
“We can’t do all of this ourselves,” she said. “But the folks that we hire have to have that same understanding and desire to communicate, to understand and respect the culture of our institutions.”
The committee will continue its discussion of the role of chancellors in the coming months, picking it up at its meetings in the new year before making any suggestions on how to change chancellor searches to the full board.
Powers said the broad will look to draft a “clear and compelling leadership profile” by which future chancellor candidates will be assessed. As they do, he said they’ll continue to look to the system’s chancellors for their input.
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