HANOVER, N.H. — Carol Folt, the scientist, has tackled some of the most tangled ecological problems on Earth.
As a graduate student in California, her question was how to improve fisheries in Lake Tahoe. At Dartmouth, Folt spurred one of her students to do a 20-year study on the introduction of salmon in the Connecticut River. In the last 15 years, she has been focused on problems of metal toxicity in water – how mercury makes its way into fish and how rice absorbs arsenic – and the impact on human health.
From pollution in fish to climate change, Folt gets a charge from looking at big, complicated issues that aren’t easily solved. She claims to actually like problems.
Folt, interim president at the elite, private Dartmouth College, will wade into a whole new ecosystem this summer when she becomes chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill. After three decades in the Ivy League, she will arrive at a sprawling public university with 29,000 students and little resemblance to the New England college green she can see from the window of her Dartmouth office.
Last week, a cool, gray drizzle fell in Hanover, N.H., but Folt’s office looked more like a Carolina spring day, dotted with vases of tulips and other colorful blooms sent from friends and colleagues. The walls of the oversized office were decorated with paintings, including aboriginal art chosen by Folt from one of the largest college art collections in the country.
By her count, Folt had spent six to eight hours answering congratulatory emails from old friends and greetings from the Carolina faithful. Amid the welcomes, though, people are already letting Folt know that there is heavy lifting ahead in Chapel Hill, where the university’s reputation has taken a hit from athletic, academic and travel scandals and, more recently, federal investigations into the handling of campus sexual assault cases.
A former and current administrator combined to write an opinion piece for The News & Observer, saying “the light on the hill is flickering.” A group of young alumni penned a public letter recently to UNC leaders, wanting accountability on academic fraud, athletics and sexual assault. And at a reception to welcome Folt, she was greeted by students who gave her a T-shirt along with the message that the issue of sexual assault needs attention.
Folt, described by many as an eternal optimist, chooses to see only a warm welcome, not people demanding solutions.
“I look at that as a very powerful starting point,” she said. “People do love the institution.”
‘Love your study’
Folt, the university’s first female chancellor, will arrive in Chapel Hill by July 1, her first stop in the South after a Midwestern upbringing, a California education and a New England academic career.
Folt, born and raised in Akron, Ohio, developed a strong work ethic and an unmistakable Midwestern accent. Her grandparents were Albanian immigrants who passed through Ellis Island before settling in Akron in a tight-knit Albanian and Greek Orthodox community, where they kept up old traditions, cooking dolmas, lamb and fish dishes. Folt’s favorite food growing up was feta cheese.
She was the middle of five children, born to parents who were the first in their families to go to college. Her mother spent some time in college, and her father was an engineer who had patents in polymer chemistry and spent his entire career at Goodrich. Folt remembers being enthralled when her father took her to the company to see the computer, which filled a large room.
The Folts had a typical upbringing, with Little League for the boys and Saturday morning art lessons for the girls. Once a week, the kids would walk to the library and fill up a bag of books.
“We were raised with this love of science and learning and the thought that we could do anything,” said Lee Vucovich, Folt’s sister, an academic librarian at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
They also rooted for Big Ten athletic teams and were die-hard fans of the Cleveland Browns and Cleveland Indians. Folt became a competitive swimmer, coaching swim teams and lifeguarding in the summers.
She graduated from Firestone High School and would leave the state for college, enrolling at University of California-Santa Barbara. There, she worked her way through school, waitressing 25-35 hours a week at diners such as Moby Dick restaurant on the wharf. She graduated with almost no debt, a goal that most students today can’t match.
“In some ways, I didn’t do all the things that other students were doing, but I developed really close friendships,” Folt recalled. “So I still felt very much like I was a student, but I had a different life.”
Her academic path was not always obvious. She started out majoring in studio art and English and, at one point, math. It wasn’t that she was dissatisfied with any of the options. “I would take these courses, and I loved them all,” she said. “I was the kind of kid who would look through the course catalog and want to take everything. I think that’s actually been probably good for me. When I went to school, it was very different in that we weren’t really being told, ‘Figure out your career.’ We were really being told, ‘Love your study.’ ”
Eventually science won out when Folt fell in love with conducting experiments in the lab and in the field. It would become her intellectual passion, and she went on to University of California-Davis for graduate school.
While studying in California, she met her husband, David Peart, who is Australian. They bonded over biology and a game of Ping-Pong . Folt went on to postdoctoral study at Michigan State University, and when a job opened at Dartmouth, they made the jump to the picturesque town of Hanover. There they started out sharing a job in the biological sciences department, a newfangled notion in the 1980s. She studied water; he studied trees.
Fixing a budget
They had two children, and Hanover was an easy place to raise them, with day care on campus and academic families that always pitched in to help one another. The children were brought up as dual citizens of the United States and Australia, Folt said, because the couple wanted them to love both countries.
At least once a year, the family travels to Brisbane, Peart’s hometown, where they have a home near the water. Folt likes to swim in the bay there, she said, trying not to think about the theme music from “Jaws.”
Folt settled into her faculty role, teaching, doing research and mentoring students. She took on her first administrative role in 1998 when she became associate director of Dartmouth’s Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program. The program investigates how arsenic and mercury in the environment affect ecosystems and eventually human health.
Much of her recent research has been in collaboration with medical school scientists. “I loved working in these big interdisciplinary teams,” she said.
When asked to take the deanship of graduate studies in 2001, she said, “I thought this is a place where I could really help.”
From there, she had a rapid rise through the administrative ranks to dean of the arts and sciences faculty and finally provost, second in command at Dartmouth.
After the recession, when the college’s endowment took a dive, the college had to close a $100 million budget shortfall. Folt and the top finance official had to take on the chore, but first they enlarged the budget committee so that more faculty would be represented when the hard decisions had to be made.
Shortly thereafter, Folt led a strategic planning effort that was wide-ranging and uncomfortable for some at the tradition-bound school. There has been talk of a greater emphasis on research and changing the name to Dartmouth University.
David Bucci, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences, said there is no problem that Folt sees as too large.
“One of the things that Carol embraced during the strategic planning process is that, we need to be thinking forward, coming up with new ideas that no one’s thought of before in higher education,” Bucci said. “And importantly, we need to let go of some things from the past.”
Folt has described herself as a team builder and a “convener of conversations.” But she keeps her meetings on schedule and wants to see evidence of progress. Bucci said he’s never been in a meeting when Folt wasn’t scribbling notes. She also has a reputation for being decisive when necessary and making difficult calls about personnel issues.
Bucci, who received his doctorate at UNC-CH, said Folt would bring a fresh perspective, but “not a naive one.” “She can be firm when she needs to be firm,” he said. “It’s a nice balance between the listening and genuine caring and making these tough calls. She’s not bullied. She’s also not an absolutist who’s just going to ignore everybody else.”
Dartmouth faced a controversy last year when the Rolling Stone published a scathing expose on hazing at the college’s popular fraternities. A former student claimed he was made to swim in a baby pool filled with human waste and other bodily fluids and being forced to eat something called a “vomelet.”
College officials have long tried to shake the college’s legendary status as the model for “Animal House,” but the hazing allegations brought a national spotlight just as the former president, Jim Kim, left to head the World Bank.
It was an uncomfortable time for Folt to move into the interim job, but she backed the dean of students in creating a new hazing policy that toughened penalties and offered immunity to students who reported hazing. It also launched random walk-throughs of the houses, over objections from students.
Folt has a way of handling issues quietly before they become big public controversies, said Leslie Henderson, a senior associate dean in Dartmouth’s medical school.
“She has those skills that you would want in managing interpersonal relationships when they become difficult,” Henderson said.
Attracting some critics
But it doesn’t always turn out well for Folt. She has outspoken critics who have taken to the Internet to blast her leadership.
Joe Asch, a 1979 Dartmouth alumnus, writes almost daily on Dartblog about the inner machinations of the college. He has criticized the strategic plan for being a sloppy brainstorming document with grammar and spelling errors.
“There’s no budget, there’s no timeline, there’s no nothing,” he said.
Folt terminated a writing program that Asch had funded on his own for several academic departments, Asch said.
He said there is little to point to in the way of accomplishments in Folt’s administrative tenure. “She’s been a kind of caretaker who hasn’t done anything except say no,” he said from his home in Paris.
Folt won’t comment on Asch, except to say: “He has his opinions and feels them passionately, even from overseas. I think what I look for is whether or not everything he says is picked up by campus, and really it rarely, rarely is.”
She said she isn’t bothered by people challenging her. As a scientist, she’s used to it. “When you go to a scientific meeting, you do not expect people to say, ‘We agree with you.’ Your best friends are the people who say, ‘I think you can do this in a better way.’ So we are trained from the very first day to appreciate criticism and to work with criticism….You do this in polite ways, you do it with respect, but critical feedback is a gift.”
Deby Guzman-Buchness, a sophomore from Cambridge, Mass., is sad to see Folt go. She liked encountering Folt, who has a reputation for frequenting student events. Folt led the recent 40th anniversary of co-education at Dartmouth, and she was spotted dancing at the “Dartmouth Idol” talent competition.
“She’s always such a kind spirit,” Guzman-Buchness said. “She’s always so happy and excited.”
Sports on a different scale
That excitement is evident when Folt attends a field hockey game on a weekday afternoon or walks the sidelines at every home football game, said Athletic Director Harry Sheehy.
The petite Folt can be seen weaving in between the cheerleaders and players as she follows the action. “She’s a cheerer,” Sheehy said. “She’s into it. She knows what she sees, and she likes good things to happen for Dartmouth.”
Folt’s predecessor hired Sheehy from Williams College to improve the performance of Dartmouth’s 34 Division I sports teams.
“My early conversations had winning included, from her, like, ‘It’s important, Harry, that we show well,’ ” Sheehy recalled. “We want to build community through athletics at Dartmouth College and we want a great student-athlete experience. What Carol realizes is that winning is a part of both of those.”
But Dartmouth has an athletics budget about one-quarter of UNC-CH’s, doesn’t offer athletic scholarships and doesn’t negotiate TV rights for games. Despite the breadth of Dartmouth’s program, it is not big-time athletics and scandals don’t happen.
Buddy Teevens, Dartmouth’s head football coach, is a big Folt fan. On the snowy New Hampshire day just after she was named UNC-CH’s chancellor, he ordered her a bouquet of Carolina blue flowers.
He describes her as energetic, upbeat, engaged, curious. “You feel like when she’s speaking to you, she’s not looking around the room,” he said.
Folt often sent handwritten notes to congratulate the team on victory. That doesn’t mean she supports athletics any more than academics, he said. At Dartmouth, Teevens said, the graduation rate of football players is 99 percent and recruits typically have high school grade point averages of 3.5 or above.
There is no Dartmouth athletic problem for Folt to solve. The ecosystem is healthy.
On the coffee table in Teevens’ office, overlooking the 15,000-seat stadium, is a thick, bound thesis titled “Investigation into the Reactivity of Cyanoindole Compounds.”
It was written by Dartmouth’s starting right tackle.