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I understand why Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz is leaving UNC

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I understand why Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz is leaving UNC

Dec 09, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Mimi Chapman
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I understand why the Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz is leaving UNC
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The former head of the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill says she can't blame Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz for leaving the university to become president of Michigan State University. (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

Over the last four weeks, the University of North Carolina community has been on edge. After reporting surfaced that Chancellor Guskiewicz was the remaining finalist for the Presidency of Michigan State University and his acknowledgement that he was considering the option, all of us at Carolina have been waiting – for his decision and for what comes next.

Many in our community have asked him to stay. Alums, faculty, staff, and students have written both public and private messages hoping that he will keep his finger in the dike here at UNC. Although I offered my support, my message was not that he should stay or go. Rather, it was that he should go with his gut, be a chancellor or president where he can do some good.

The last four years have been brutal. As the former chair of the faculty, I’ve had a front-row seat for much of it, likely just the tip of the iceberg.

Consider his first faculty meeting following his permanent naming to the position. He had to describe, if not defend, a ridiculous settlement with the Sons of the Confederate Veterans to keep a contested Civil War statue permanently off our campus. It was an arrangement no thinking person would willingly be party to, and it of course was foisted upon this campus from forces far beyond it. 

Soon after came the pandemic. Our campus had to beg the UNC System and by extension the legislature to reduce our dormitory census to an amount higher than what our health department recommended. And then beg again to close the campus to stop an infection rate that threatened to overrun our campus health services or worse. The Chancellor and Provost had to do the negotiating, while others of us spoke publicly about the lack of thought and science behind such decisions.

Then came the tenure battle of Nikole Hannah Jones and the threatened firing of the Chancellor for supporting her and the faculty. Although he said nothing publicly against the actions that led to that showdown, behind the scenes he was negotiating to get her a vote. He made the audacious move to talk to angry students that day. 

Enough already.  Most people would find a golden parachute and be out the door. Kevin wanted to stay, to see if he could protect this place. 

Fast forward to February 2023 when he was lambasted by the BOT and directed to “accelerate the development of a School of Civic Life and Leadership.” In keeping with an ongoing bent toward revisionist history, the current board chair recently opined that both the Chancellor and the Provost were authors of a memo that proposed what is now known as SCILL, again asserting that somehow this is a benign effort, something that’s been in progress over years. The questions, debate and, indeed, anger over such a center – which was never described as a School before February – indeed began years ago. But planning by the faculty? No sir. 

Who wants to lead in such a situation? Imagine what it must feel like to prepare for two days per month with your board, the entity with which you are supposed to hold the institution in trust. Yet you might as well be walking into a viper pit, full of people who hiss one thing to your face and another behind closed doors. This one’s jockeying for political office. This one wants to get rid of tenured faculty. That one is a champion of civility, except to those who tell him things he doesn’t want to hear. Yet another is all about free speech for everyone except you. You, Chancellor, are not to speak unless we okay it. In fact, don’t make an announcement to reduce tuition for lower income families or lament a U.S. Supreme Court ruling the institution fought for nine years. 

One wonders why these people want to be involved in the university at all. Except for the basketball games and the glitzy fundraising events, they seem to hate everything about the place.  

Not long ago, I had occasion to meet the former president of New College in Florida.  She held the post for 19 months before she was fired by a hostile and politically motivated board.  We talked briefly about what her life had been like since. She said it had been a hard experience, and she has taken time away to think about her next move. But she talked about what she valued, how much she loved the students she’d taught over her career, how she treasured her colleagues who have remained at New College, trying to make a go of it in a changed landscape. She also spoke about the intense stress college presidents are under and the risks to one’s health. Her comments left me thinking about our Chancellor and the stress he’s endured. No one wants to die on the job. It’s a stark statement, but I don’t think I’m wrong.

Choosing to serve in a public institution, in whatever capacity, is a gift to the larger world. It is a statement that says everyone deserves to have access to a college education, that the world needs research and scholarship that is done for the public good, not to enrich a corporation or stockholders. Kevin has made that choice throughout his career, and it is significant that he is going to another state school, a school where first-generation students can find a high quality and affordable education, one that will change their lives and the lives of their children. 

For his sake, I hope the board there understands, in a way that ours clearly does not, that they are getting a strong and capable person, someone who has lived public education through his whole career. I pray they let him lead with his heart and his intellect, let him choose his own team, support him as he joins with faculty and student leaders. If they do their campus will heal from the difficulties it has faced and be stronger. 

I’ll be rooting for the Spartans and rooting for Kevin has he takes this next step.