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Promising to keep ‘foot on the pedal,’ Roper takes charge of UNC System

Dr. William Roper, interim president of the UNC System. (CJ file photo)
Dr. William Roper, interim president of the UNC System. (CJ file photo)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information since its original publication. 

Dr. William Roper has officially taken the helm of the University of North Carolina System.  

UNC’s new interim president presented a welcome address Jan. 25 to the UNC Board of Governors, setting the tone for new leadership in the departure of former President Margaret Spellings.

This is no caretaker period, Roper told board members.  

“I intend to keep the UNC System’s foot on the pedal, and do so for however long this board deems appropriate,” Roper said.

The former CEO of UNC Health Care has inherited a monumental task in the wake of turmoil over Silent Sam and the abrupt resignation of UNC Chapel Hill’s Chancellor Carol Folt.

Folt, who ignited turmoil over her decision to strip UNC Chapel Hill’s campus of Silent Sam’s pedestal and remaining accoutrements, submitted her resignation last week, stating her intention to leave the job after May graduation.

The board voted to accept her resignation, but moved Folt’s exit up to Jan. 31. In a resolution passed Friday, the board gave Roper authority to “negotiate and enter into a severance agreement with a chancellor on behalf of the University, which may provide severance pay in an amount appropriate to the market.” 

Unlike Spellings, who refrained from commenting personally on Silent Sam, Roper is open about his views.

“Although I was not supportive of the way the monument was taken down in August, my personal position is [that] we should not be putting the monument back on McCorkle Place.”

Roper, who now must name an interim chancellor to the job in Chapel Hill, says he is up to the job.

“This is not my first rodeo,” he said.

Great leaders must chart strategic direction, and deal with “external factors that can affect it.”

The role of interim president also requires “Management 101,” he said.

“It is to empower and give resources to the people doing the real work and then get out of the way and let them do their job.”

“I’ve been privileged to lead many large public institutions,” he said. “And when leaders have flexibility — the kind that private sector CEOs take for granted — they excel. With this Board’s blessing, I’m asking our elected officials to empower this System to rise to that level. I hope they will trust this Board and its President to be held accountable, but do so with the flexibility to lead effectively.”

Roper’s comments come even as a media storm of criticism floods the UNC board, which has repeatedly been accused of micromanaging individual universities, and of involving itself too much in campus operations.

The body is working hard to do what is in the best interest of North Carolina, said board Chairman Harry Smith.

“I would ask that what I think is fair, is to judge us as we go. ” Smith said. Certainly judge us on the outcome. I think criticism is and should be part of what we do. … I welcome it, but judge us as we go.”

“Though we haven’t got the credit that I think we deserve in those regards, we’re going to stay focused on just that — doing the right things. Nothing more. Nothing less.”

During a post-meeting press conference, Roper wouldn’t comment on whether he is open to taking the position full time.

“Some members of the board have had told me they think I’m doing a pretty good job and we’ll just see how that goes.”