By Ken Elkins
If there were a book describing his years at UNC Charlotte, Phil Dubois has a title in mind: Details Matter: UNC Charlotte 2005-2020. The “Details Matter” part is imprinted on the side of his favorite office coffee mug. It’s also drilled into the minds of university staff.
Dubois retires at the end of June after 15 years as chancellor of what has become the third largest university in the UNC System. He sweats the little stuff and expects his staff to do the same. He acknowledges his status as a micromanager: He picked the color of the bricks used in construction of campus buildings. He chose interior wall colors and patterns for floor coverings.
The approach worked as he became the longest-tenured chancellor currently in the UNC System. The California native served as provost of the Charlotte campus from 1991 to 1997 before spending eight years as president of the University of Wyoming. He returned to North Carolina in 2005, lured in part by the pleas of Charlotte banker Mac Everett and developer Smoky Bissell, key UNCC boosters.
During his tenure, enrollment increased by 40% to about 29,000, more than $1.2 billion of campus buildings were constructed, 38 degree programs were added and a football program was started. The expansion included a 12-story downtown building that has been named for Dubois and his wife, Lisa. It sits near the city’s light-rail system, which connects the university and the center city.
Dubois and the university community have also seen tragedy. On April 30, 2019, two UNCC students were killed and four others injured in a shooting on campus.
Business North Carolina interviewed Dubois at his campus office, where cardboard boxes were half-filled with books and documents from a 44-year academic career. While he is retiring to Georgia, he will remain an adviser for a year under terms of his contract. On April 28, Sharon Gaber, president of the University of Toledo, was named as his successor. She will start on July 1.
► Did you expect to have a 15-year tenure?
I returned to Charlotte hoping that I would end my career here. I was in my mid-50s and thinking if I was going to make a move, that would be the time to make it. When I learned about Jim Woodward’s retirement, I just decided to make that leap, knowing that Jim was going to have served 16 years.
So this place has had a tradition of long leadership, long chancellorships. I came back with the intention that I would end my career here. But I didn’t know exactly what the number would be.
► Why are most chancellors leaving much sooner than 15 years?
It’s a very difficult job. It’s very demanding with so many internal and external constituencies, with lots of competing perspectives about what the university ought to be doing and how you ought to do it.
Within the UNC System, you can go back and look at several years and see a variety of different situations where chancellors end up leaving at somebody else’s desire. [In the last year, chancellors at East Carolina and UNC Chapel Hill have left abruptly amid campus controversies.]
► What are some of your proudest accomplishments at UNC Charlotte?
If I had to think about the things that matter most to the long-term future of the institution, it’s the building of the physical infrastructure for academic and student support. Because those things will be here forever. Generations of faculty, staff, students and visitors to the campus will be able to enjoy them.
We built them to a point where the next several chancellors are not going to have to worry about building a lot of new things but maintaining what we’ve already built. That’s a good position to be in given the scarcity of resources.
If I think about [my proudest accomplishment in] the outside world: light rail, by far. I say that both because I worked on it the longest — 13 years to finish [the] light rail from the time I started — but you think about the economic impact from the campus all the way to [Charlotte’s] center city. [If] you think about the expansion of housing and opportunity for people along the train line, the opportunity it gives for people to access the campus in ways they wouldn’t have before and for our students to enjoy the opportunities and the amenities of center city, it has been a game changer.
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► What was the most challenging part of your work?
Communication is a lot more difficult today than when I started. The rise of social media, the multiple platforms for people to both receive your message and to criticize if they want, is more challenging.
[Also,] political relationships: There has been a certain amount of instability at the [UNC System] Board of Governors level and in the presidency. That hasn’t so much adversely affected UNC Charlotte, because we tend to run under the radar a little bit because of our distance and because we haven’t had any large issues that have attracted the attention of those folks.
Members of the board of governors, both the people who’ve been in leadership and membership at large, have been very, very supportive of me personally and UNC Charlotte.
► How will the April 2019 shooting at UNC Charlotte affect the school?
I don’t think that it’s going to have a measurable impact upon the trajectory of UNC Charlotte long term. We expect, for example, that our enrollment [next fall] will be back over where it was in the fall of 2019, when we suffered the loss. [Enrollment of incoming freshmen was down 250 from the previous year.]
We’ve recovered pretty quickly from the impact from the shooting on enrollment. I don’t think the shooting itself will have any negative consequences on our ability to continue to recruit really high-quality administrators, faculty and staff, and excellent students.
[The shooting at UNC Charlotte] will always be a part of the emotional makeup of the campus. We’re going to remember it with a physical memorial and will, at least for the first three years, do some remembrance activities.
► Do you favor more autonomy for the individual campuses of the UNC System?
There has been a movement by the [UNC System] Board of Governors to delegate more authority to the local boards of trustees, and that has been a good thing. It doesn’t make sense right now to have something that’s been thoroughly vetted by a very good board of trustees and then vetted again by the board of governors. In the case of building projects, for example, all that does is add time and cost to the project.
That’s an evolving process. We’ve learned to work that process as [efficiently] as we’re allowed to, and we’ve never had a project turned down.
The more that what I call the “big board” can focus on the policies and practices and procedures that affect every campus and leave the oversight of the transactions of the campuses — like the building projects and leasing of facilities and purchasing of goods — to the campuses, that will make for a more efficient system. It will take a while to get there.