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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Op/Ed: Talented UNC Chapel Hill leader is ‘victim of environment’

By Paul Fulton

There’s little wonder why UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz is entertaining a new job.

Guskiewicz is reportedly a finalist for the presidency at Michigan State University. Though he is a nationally renowned expert in neuroscience and concussions, a MacArthur Genius Award winner and a deft administrator, that’s a step down from the chancellorship at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Maybe we just don’t want geniuses running Carolina.

Just look at the environment as Guskiewicz, who became Interim Chancellor in 2019, navigated the University through one of its most tumultuous periods, including:

  • The pandemic, with ever-shifting signals on whether it was safe for students to return to campus.
  • The General Assembly stripped the Governor of any appointments to university boards of trustees and eventually appointments to both state and local community-college boards.
  • The aftermath of the removal of the Silent Sam statue on campus, including an abortive deal to give the statue to the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
  • The UNC Board of Governors didn’t accept a single one of his and a former Board of Trustees Chair’s recommendations for appointees to the Board of Trustees.
  • Foot-dragging by the Board of Trustees on tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones as a Knight Chair in Race and Journalism, and her subsequent rejection of Chapel Hill.
  • A surprise resolution by the Board of Trustees to create a conservative School of Civic Life and Leadership, blindsiding the chancellor and the faculty. This was followed with orchestrated coverage by Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, as well as $4 million and orders from the General Assembly to hire 10-20 faculty members from outside the university.
  • A new law requiring state universities to switch accreditors every time they renew accreditation. This is costly, time-consuming and adds no value.
  • A new law that says the state will match donations only for distinguished professorships in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in the future. The new law explicitly precludes state matches for distinguished professorships in journalism and law.
  •  A public scolding from the now-Chair of the Board of Trustees for pursuing a case to defend what used to be considered the law – consideration of race as one of many factors in admissions.
  • Departures of a number of key faculty, including Kelly Hogan, Suzanne Barbour, Deen Freelon, William Sturkey and Andrew Perrin.

More broadly, consider what’s become of public education in North Carolina. Guskiewicz can be seen as a casualty of a toxic environment that has politicized public education from top to bottom:

  • The state ranks 50th for the percentage of its GDP (gross domestic product) it invests in K-12 public education. In other words, we’re plenty able to invest more in public education, yet we don’t do it to the extent any other state does.
  • Before adoption of a new state budget in October, we ranked an abysmal 46th in starting teacher pay and 34th in average teacher pay.
  • As a result, we saw a 50% drop in the number of education majors across the UNC System from 2010-22.
  • Public schools across the state started this school year with 3,500 K-12 teacher vacancies – and an accompanying increase in classrooms with non-certified teachers.8
  • And the new state budget includes a plan to expand vouchers that give students tax dollars to attend private K-12 schools from $95 million in 2022-23 to $520 million by 2032-33, which will likely divert funds from public schools. The budget also removes any income limits for these subsidies for private schools.9

Amid this environment, political and ideological interference, it’s no wonder Guskiewicz is considering other options.

Yet as noted above, he has steered the University through some of the most trying times in its 234-year history. He has shown courage and independence in the process.

He likes to speak of the university’s “low stone walls” – a metaphor for how researchers from different disciplines readily collaborate in their work.

There is real beauty in that.

It’s exemplified by the critical research of virologist Dr. Ralph Baric and the work of alumna Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who oversaw the rapid development of a vaccine for Covid – a development not just for North Carolina or the United States, but for all of humanity.

A week after the U.S. Supreme Court banned use of race in admissions this summer, he announced the university would cover tuition and fees for any student from a family with household income under $80,000.

That’s a laudable effort to stay true to the University’s tradition of access for students from all income levels – even if members of the Board of Governors didn’t like it.10

Though no one could blame him, if and when he does leave, it will undoubtedly open an opportunity for still more political meddling by Republican legislators and the Board of Governors.

I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen. But recent experience tells me it will.

I was a Republican all my adult life, until both parties became too extreme and I saw the micro-meddling by Republicans in the NC General Assembly in our world-renowned University of North Carolina System.

I’m now unaffiliated with any political party. The largest group of voters in North Carolina – voters who favor public education – is unaffiliated as well. There’s a reason for that.

Republicans are clearly now a minority political party. Yet they are clearly in charge of public education in our state.

Is this what we want? I don’t want either party dabbling in public education. It was not that way when I was on the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees or the UNC System Board of Governors.

And it should not be that way today.

Paul Fulton, of Winston-Salem, is a former president of Sara Lee Corp.; former dean of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC; former trustee at UNC-Chapel Hill; former member of the UNC Board of Governors; and Chair of Higher Ed Works.

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