Who should lead the University of North Carolina System?
The question dangled over UNC leaders Thursday, Sept. 19, as chancellors from the system’s 17 campuses crowded around a boardroom table in Chapel Hill. The UNC Board of Governors’ Presidential Search Committee listened while campus heads talked about the qualities they seek in a president.
Top qualifications were job commitment, interpersonal skills, understanding of campus dynamics, and love for North Carolina. But overall, chancellors said they are looking for one key trait: a steady-handed leader who has the board’s trust.
“Getting some stability in the administration is really critical right now,” said UNC Charlotte Chancellor Phillip Dubois.
UNC has paved a rocky road when it comes to hiring — and retaining — leadership. In 2016, former UNC President Tom Ross was fired without ceremony. The event created an uproar over lack of transparency in board dealings. Things escalated when the BOG, then led by John Fennebresque, hired former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings as Ross’ replacement. Fennebresque resigned amid questions about public accountability, while Spellings faced two years of protests, hurricanes, lawsuits, controversy over a confederate statue, and political baseball inside the BOG.
She resigned just 2 1/2 years into her five year contract.
Dr. Bill Roper, former leader of UNC Health Care, became interim president in January. He’ll stay as long as he’s needed, but hasn’t confirmed whether he’d seek the permanent job.
In August, UNC hired Kim Strach, former head of the N.C. State Board of Elections, to lead the presidential search. Officials are trying to balance confidentiality with transparency, Strach said Thursday, and plans to find a new leader by spring 2020.
First, the committee must decide what to look for in a candidate, Strach said. The board will seek input from all sides, and consider candidates from multiple backgrounds.
“The person may be sitting in this room,” said Randy Ramsey, the committee’s chairman.
Indeed, some in UNC’s pool of chancellors should be considered for the job, member Phil Byers said of the officials around the table.
“I know that scares some of you to death,” he joked. “If you survived me for five years, then you’re probably pretty easy to get along with.”
Don’t be afraid to give input — or to throw your hat in the ring, Byers said.
The dance between UNC’s board and president has been too tense — at least over the past few years, said North Carolina A&T State University Chancellor Harold Martin.
“My observation is that the president, over the past few years or so, has had the appearance of protecting the universities from the board,” Martin said.
The BOG must have full confidence in the new leader, and so must the chancellors, Martin said. Historically, that hasn’t been the case.
“The last thing we want to do is hire someone this board questions,” Ramsey said.