Faculty members surprised, concerned as UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor weighs exit

Sources say decision could come soon, interim chancellor could be controversial

By: - November 17, 2023 2:39 pm
banners saying "UNC" on a building at UNC Chapel Hill

The former head of the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill says she can’t blame Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz for leaving the university to become president of Michigan State University. (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

Members of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty were blindsided by this week’s revelation that Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz is weighing leaving the university to become president of Michigan State University.

As faculty members, staff, students and alumni await his decision, they are anticipating a difficult and politically fraught search process for Carolina’s next leader.

“This came as a surprise to every faculty member I’ve talked with,” said Beth Moracco, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, in an interview with Newsline Friday.

Michigan State’s student newspaper, The State News, reported Wednesday that Guskiewicz is the sole remaining candidate for the position.

Michigan State is a larger land grant university with a total undergraduate and graduate enrollment of more than 50,000 students. Like UNC, however, it’s had a long list of controversies and political conflicts in recent years.

“We were stunned by the leaked information and concerned with the prospect of Kevin leaving,” Moracco said. “There have been times when faculty haven’t agreed with his course of action or decisions, but he has always been very communicative with faculty, supportive of faculty government, he’s always met with the faculty chair one on one regularly. There have always been open lines of communication.”

A photo of Beth Moracco, chair of the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill. (Photo: UNC-Chapel Hill)
Beth Moracco, chair of the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill. (Photo: UNC-Chapel Hill)

Guskiewicz has been at the helm of the university through some very tumultuous times, Moracco said, from the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and controversy over the failed hiring of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones to this year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on race in admissions and the legislature’s Republican majority creating a new school at the university and directing who will be hired there and how.

“So, he’s had a difficult run of it,” Moracco said. “And I think he’s walked that line of keeping communication open with the [UNC System] Board of Governors and [UNC-Chapel Hill] Board of Trustees and being an advocate for the university. It’s been challenging.”

Leading the flagship campus of the 16-university system would be a difficult job for anyone, Moracco said. She’s hearing concerns expressed over the process of replacing Guskiewicz and who may take the job — both on an interim basis and as the new, full-time leader of the university.

Process and politics

Should Guskiewicz leave his position, the search for UNC-Chapel Hill’s next chancellor will be different from previous searches, thanks to a change to UNC System policy adopted in May.

Under the previous and somewhat controversial process, the UNC System president was granted more direct power in the selection. That’s something for which UNC System President Peter Hans pushed even before he officially assumed the presidency in 2020.

Traditionally, a search committee made up of an individual school’s board of trustees conducted an independent chancellor search; in turn, it forwarded at least two finalists to the UNC system president. The president then chose a final candidate to submit for final approval by the UNC System Board of Governors.

Hans proposed a change that would have allowed the president to unilaterally add up to two hand-chosen candidates to any chancellor search process. Those candidates would go through the same interviews as other candidates, but would automatically move forward in a slate of finalists for the position, irrespective of the opinions of search committees or boards of trustees.

In effect, the president would have had the power to appoint finalists and to choose the final candidate from those finalists.

The proposed change was unpopular among campus boards of trustees, particularly at HBCUs that worried the selection of their campus leaders would be further politicized by a board of largely white, largely conservative political appointees. It also divided the UNC Board of Governors, to which Hans reports. A number of members said they worried it would essentially allow the system to disregard local search committees and boards of trustees. After a long debate, the board changed the proposal so that only one of the president’s hand-picked candidates would become an automatic finalist, not two.

Even with that amendment, however, critics said it concentrated too much power in the hands of the UNC System president. Proponents said it made the UNC System more like a private business, in which CEOs choose the leadership teams they believe will be most successful. Though search processes are confidential, the UNC System said that during the time period Hans held that power, he did not use it.

Under the new and current policy, Hans still wields a great deal of power in the process and, along with members of the Board of Governors, is more involved from start to finish.

Hans, in consultation with the chair of the campus board of trustees, chooses the members of the search advisory committee, which must now include members of the Board of Governors. Board members were previously prohibited from serving on search committees.

The new policy states that the search committee “must include representatives of the board of trustees, the faculty, the student body, the staff, and the alumni. The voting membership must also include a sitting or retired chancellor from another UNC System university with 24 months or more experience serving as a permanent chancellor.”

The policy does not say the representative of the faculty must be the chair of the faculty, though that has been the case in recent searches launched under the new policy.

Moracco, as chair of the faculty, may find herself on the search committee. If so, she said, she believes it is important the school’s next leader be someone who, like Guskiewicz, has a background in academia and a first-hand understanding of how the university works.

That wasn’t the case in 2021’s chancellor search at Fayetteville State University, in which Darrell Allison — a politically well-connected member of the Board of Governors — entered the search at a late stage and was ultimately chosen, despite having no teaching or administrative experience at the university level, and no position at any university outside of his role as a political appointee.

“Kevin has been a faculty member for 28 years,” Moracco said. “He knows what it’s like. He’s come up through the ranks. He’s served as a dean. He identifies as a faculty member and says so in his remarks. He has to make decisions maybe all faculty don’t agree with, but he always takes the faculty perspective into account. I don’t know that we can count on that with another chancellor.”

Names floated for possible interim chancellor, full-time leader

Several sources on both the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors told Newsline this week they weren’t surprised by Guskiewicz’s possible departure, given frequent and increasing tensions between the chancellor and the conservative political appointees who make up both boards.

Chancellor Guskiewicz (Photo: UNC.edu)

Those sources asked not to be named so that they could discuss confidential discussions among board members and the possible upcoming search process.

“You can say that it’s a position where you are really the servant of two masters, or you have different constituencies,” said one trustee. “You have the campus, by which I mean the faculty and the staff and the students and maybe the alumni too, and you have who you actually answer to — the trustees and the board of governors.”

While Guskiewicz has walked the tight rope between those two constituencies better than some of his predecessors, the trustee said, it’s become apparent that his perspective and philosophies do not align with the boards to which he reports and the legislature that appoints their members.

“I think there’s always been some tension and there has been some tension historically between academia — what they like to call ‘the academy’ and the reality of a university, what its purpose is, what it’s direction should be, which really the North Carolina Constitution puts in the hands of the representatives of the people in the form of the legislature.”

For that reason, a second trustee said, UNC-Chapel Hill provost Chris Clemens — a vocal political conservative who has a warmer relationship with many of the trustees — may be a good candidate for interim chancellor and eventually the full-time leadership role at Carolina.

A photo of UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Chris Clemens (Photo: UNC-Chapel Hill)
UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Chris Clemens (Photo: UNC-Chapel Hill)

Trustees and members of the board of governors have been impressed with Clemens for years, members of both boards told Newsline, particularly in his role helping to bring the controversial new School of Civic Life and Leadership to fruition.

The school was described as a “conservative center” by UNC System leaders from its earliest conceptions and more recently as a means of “leveling the playing field” on a campus where conservatives believe liberal views are overrepresented.

In early correspondence on the subject, Clemens described himself as qualified to help lead such an effort because he was “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.”

“I think in terms of an interim chancellor, he is well placed and could be a real bridge between the faculty and the boards,” a member of the board of governors told Newsline this week. “One of the problems we’ve had over the last few years is having leaders at some of the campuses who are not rowing the same direction [as the governing boards and the legislature], who are not interested in rowing in the same direction, and that’s where you get a lot of this conflict.”

Two members of the board of governors confirmed Friday there have been discussions of members of either the board of governors or board of trustees stepping down from their positions to take on the interim chancellor role — a solution they said doesn’t have the support of all members of the board and could prove controversial.

“I’m not saying there aren’t members who could do it, and do it well,” one board of governors member said. “But I think there’s going to be a public perception that it’s a political power grab, and do you really want to start off a search for the next chancellor that way?”

Whoever the interim or final choice is, the board member said, there will probably be some controversy.

“I think you have to accept that when you make some decisions, there’s just going to be controversy,” the board member said. “You have to decide if you want to avoid controversy, or you want to accomplish what you feel needs to be accomplished for the university and for the system.”

Decision could come soon

Guskiewicz is being invited to meet with the faculty at Michigan State University, a faculty source at the school told Newsline Friday.

“The search process here has not been what I’d call transparent,” the faculty source said. “So we are actually just learning who Guskiewicz is, that he’s a finalist, that he may be the final candidate. We haven’t had the chance to speak with him, to really get a sense of what we think of him as a leader.”

Faculty members at the campus have been concerned a series of recent political conflicts and scandals there would limit the candidate pool, the source said.

“Frankly, as much as I’ve read about the troubles they’ve had at Chapel Hill, he could find coming here is kind of out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak,” they said. “But we are hearing that this could be fast moving, and a decision could be coming soon, so we’re trying to get up to speed.”

Guskiewicz confirmed in a Thursday statement he is “weighing” taking the position, but has made no public statements since.

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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.

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