Published: April 17, 2013
By Jim Jenkins — firstname.lastname@example.org
As president of what is now the University of North Carolina System, Bill Friday used to shock people who called his office and heard, without interception, “Hello? This is William Friday. May I help you?”
Students in the days of one of Friday’s beloved predecessors, Frank Porter Graham, used to be a little uncertain of what to do when they’d glance to the back of their classrooms and see the small, balding man with the warm smile just sitting there watching.
Bill Aycock, chancellor during some tumultuous times from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, was a law professor before and afterward and kept his door open for students but not necessarily for special interests who wanted to twist his arm. He once, legend goes, offered a quick exit through the open door for boosters who wanted the head of the football coach (who got a contract extension instead).
These leaders understood, long before the late CBS icon (and UNC alum) Charles Kuralt ever put it on videotape, that UNC-Chapel Hill was the “people’s university,” representative of the people and servant to the people and an investment by the people. It was Kuralt who once, on the occasion of the university’s bicentennial celebration, said he represented all the people who couldn’t afford to go to Duke and “wouldn’t even if they could have.”
The truth was, as one acquainted with Kuralt, he didn’t really have anything against Duke except that it provided excellent fodder for speeches before Carolina alumni. (Well, OK, he’s was no fool about Duke anyway.)
But his point about the “people’s university” should be understood first and foremost by the leaders of that institution, and now is as good a time as any for one decidedly not distinguished alum to bring it up. Carol Folt, an illustrious scientist from Dartmouth College and in fact its interim president, has decided to abandon New England winters in favor of the much-ballyhooed North Carolina springs. (It’s perhaps fortunate that she was chosen in that most agreeable season rather than, say, August, which can make even Carolinians pine for the Northeast.)
Folt’s academic credentials are impressive indeed, something that was important in this search to faculty members, who feared the choice might be a person with a business-type background to take charge of an institution that even alums will acknowledge has been troubled by academic and athletics scandal.
And while throughout these two years of discontent it’s not ever been time to call in Duke and discuss annexation, Folt does have some challenges ahead, and that means immediately. The chancellor preceding her, Holden Thorp, also is an esteemed scientist and was experienced (as is Folt) in academic administration. But the challenge of facing a crisis of serious proportion that seemed never-ending, as The News & Observer reported on an overheated football program and a reckless lack of academic oversight, proved daunting.
UNC-Chapel Hill never had a more loyal leader, and not everything that embarrassed Thorp was his fault, of course.
But Thorp seemed hesitant to be as open as he should have been and was obligated to be as the chancellor of a public institution. A perception of a lack of openness hurts a leader’s credibility and ultimately prolongs the agony. The Band-Aid seemed to come up one hair at a time.
Folt needs to demonstrate early on that though her background may be in private education, where the obligations for openness are fewer, she gets it and understands that in a public institution, at a “people’s university,” openness is more important than the embarrassment that sometimes goes with it.
Human instinct sometimes runs opposite that obligation, perhaps understandably. Thorp couldn’t have imagined as problems began to unfold that they would multiply and magnify and result in multiple investigations and the uncovering of academic fraud the likes of which the university could not have anticipated. (And that certainly he would never have condoned.)
But as the problems dragged on, the university appeared reluctant to aggressively seek all of the information it needed, and even more reluctant to discuss it with candor. So on and on it went.
Chancellor-designate Folt doubtless knows people on the UNC-CH campus, and she will undoubtedly in the coming weeks (she takes over July 1) do considerable reading on the institution’s history. Let us hope she adopts the leadership philosophies of those who understood that the “people’s university” is a public trust.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at email@example.com