For the first time in almost two years a demonstration of leadership is emerging from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Carolina chancellor Holden Thorp took the bold, courageous and only step by resigning from his position effective at the conclusion of the current academic year. In the end, it was only Thorp who stuck his head above the fog that had descended upon and plagued all levels of UNC leadership – everyone from Thorp to Carolina trustees, UNC system president Tom Ross and the UNC Board of Governors. The fog is so thick, in May of this year Ross proclaimed the “situation” resolved. No one could look beyond their Carolina pride (21 of out of 32 voting BOG members are UNC alumni); make the necessary and tough decisions; the leadership failure is shared by all. Thorp’s decision is the appropriate one. He now understands the penalty of leadership.
The vacuum of leadership was deafening and destructive, not only to Carolina but to the entire UNC system. Ross, trustees and the BOG can regain the public’s trust by conducting an open and more transparent search for Thorp’s replacement. Bring the finalists to campus. Allow them to share their vision with the campus. Gain valuable community feedback.
The UNC system is no stranger to open chancellor searches. Appalachian State University chose their current chancellor in an open search. He and other finalists made public visits to campus, interacting and speaking with various university constituencies. Paul Gates, former ASU faculty chair and member of the search committee told The News and Observer in 2004 that, “It went off without a hitch. It gave us a second look at the candidates and how they interacted with each group. If they’re on thin ice at home, we don’t want them here.”
Carolina’s previous chancellor, James Moeser, didn’t seem to have a problem with public scrutiny. He was a public finalist for the presidency of the University of Florida before the Chapel Hill gig became available. This was all the while he was chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Also in 2004, the University of Nebraska choose then UNC system senior vice president J.B. Milliken as its president in an open process which he called “energizing.” Milliken worked for UNC president Molly Broad. Broad, now head of the American Council on Education applauded a decision in Arizona to keep names of the preliminary candidates secret but announcing the finalists publically. While at UNC Broad allowed individual campus chancellor search committees to make the decision about secrecy. It worked for Appalachian State. Kenneth Peacock remains chancellor, leading ASU in unprecedented growth, including three football national championships – the root of UNC-CH’s quandary.
Faculty from across the state agree: transparency is necessary and critical. The UNC Faculty Assembly asked in 2001 for chancellor finalists to meet and share their visions with the faculty. Highly paid search consultants are the core advocates of closed search processes. They play to campus leaders’ fears to siphon hundreds of thousands of dollars of scarce university resources. They claim the most qualified candidates won’t apply. There is absolutely no evidence that this is the case. To think that Carolina won’t attract the nation’s top higher education leaders for the chancellorship without an over-priced search firm and a completely secret process is laughable. Those who support such a position must have doubt in Carolina’s flagship status. They must believe that UNC Chapel Hill is no longer the nation’s premiere public institution of higher learning.
I don’t. I’m extremely passionate about the University of North Carolina and all its campuses. After its people and natural beauty, the University of North Carolina is the state’s greatest resource. Our state’s public and private higher education system is unparalleled in the nation. The UNC system is the only state entity driving economic development and technology transfer in all 100 of North Carolina’s counties. I was involved in its governance, both at NC State University and on the system level. I’ve traveled many miles across the state preaching its benefits while advocating affordability and accessibility. While attending tuition protests at the February BOG gathering, I was arrested and thrown out of the meeting.
It’s time for UNC leaders at all levels to follow Thorp’s example and lead. Time to demonstrate to the people of the state that the fog of leadership hanging over Chapel Hill has lifted; announce again to the nation – Carolina is the greatest public university. And that if you want to lead this public university – you’ll have to tell the public why. If not, “we don’t want them here.” Pushing for transparency in chancellor search processes is not worth another arrest. But we all must continue to fight for UNC – just go ask Holden Thorp.