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Lee Roberts named interim chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill

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Lee Roberts named interim chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill

Dec 15, 2023 | 10:14 am ET
By Joe Killian
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Lee Roberts named interim chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill
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UNC Board of Governors member Lee Roberts – Photo unc.edu

Lee Roberts will become the interim chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC System president Peter Hans announced Friday morning. He will take the helm of the UNC system’s flagship university Jan. 12.

Roberts, a member of the UNC System Board of Governors who served as state budget director under former Gov. Pat McCrory, will take the position after Kevin Guskiewicz’s exit to become the new president of Michigan State University.

“If you care about higher education, if you care about the future of the state, and if you care about public service, you have to care about what happens at Carolina,” Roberts said in a release published by UNC-Chapel Hill Friday. “We don’t have a more important institution in the state.”

Roberts will step down from his position on the board of governors to become interim chancellor, as required by UNC System policy. He says he has not yet decided whether he will apply for the permanent role as chancellor.

“I know that Lee is committed to the state of North Carolina and the important role of public higher education,” Guskiewicz said in a statement Friday. “I look forward to working with him during our transition. He will build on the incredible work underway by our world-class faculty, dedicated staff, curious students and passionate alumni.”

Rumors of Roberts’s ascent to Chapel Hill’s top leadership position have proliferated since word leaked last month Guskiewicz was a finalist in the Michigan State search. Students, faculty members, alumni and even some trustees have expressed concern the choice of Roberts, who has no administrative experience in higher education, will further politicize a university where GOP lawmakers have seized control of processes and decision making usually left to the faculty, staff and administration.

UNC System policy gives the system president sole discretion in choosing interim chancellors. The UNC System Board of Governors will vote on a permanent chancellor after a national search process, held according to a new chancellor search policy adopted in May.

Hans praised Roberts in a Friday press release, saying he “knows how to find common ground on challenging issues, and he brings out the best in everyone around him.”

“He’s deeply committed to the university, and I’m excited to work alongside him in supporting the great work happening at Carolina,” Hans said.

A headshot of Marty Kotis
Marty Kotis, member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. (Image: Courtesy of Marty Kotis)

“Lee will be a very strong leader and is a great get for UNC,” said Marty Kotis, member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and former member of the UNC System Board of Governors.

“His experiences as state budget director, chair of the Budget and Finance Committee at the BOG and background in private equity will all be extremely valuable to the university,” Kotis said. “He has developed and fully understands metrics of success and funding models from both a university and taxpayer perspective. I’m truly excited about Carolina’s future with his leadership.”

Dave Boliek, a member and former chair of the campus board of trustees, said he is also looking forward to Roberts’s leadership.

“As a trustee I’m looking forward to the next chapter,” Boliek said. “I know President Hans has thoroughly thought through and vetted the idea of Governor Lee Roberts taking the position of interim and I’ve talked to Lee Roberts. I know he weighed the decision very thoughtfully.”

“While Lee will not be a traditional academic, I believe he has the acumen and the thoughtfulness to be a fantastic leader,” Boliek said.

Last week UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees chair John Preyer last week urged Hans to appoint an interim with strong Carolina ties. Some board members, who say Preyer is among the trustees skeptical of the Roberts appointment, told Newsline they saw that as an indication of opposition Roberts, who has no direct connection to UNC-Chapel Hill.

“I appreciate the time and effort that President Hans put into his selection of the interim Chancellor,” Preyer said in a brief statement Friday. “I welcome Lee Roberts to the greatest public university in the world and to the very best shade of blue.
Let’s all get to work for Carolina!”

A background in finance, politics

Roberts, who earned his bachelor’s at Duke University and law degree at Georgetown University, is a managing partner at Raleigh-based private investment firm SharpVue Capital, which he co-founded in 2016.

Before that, he was state budget director under McCrory for 16 months, a successor to former budget director Art Pope, who now serves with Roberts on the board of governors. During his time in state government, Roberts was seen as levelheaded and even-handed, earning praise from GOP legislative leaders even as they often butted heads — and occasionally ended up in court — with McCrory.

During his tenure with McCrory, Roberts faced questions from a legislative committee when the company of Graeme Keith Sr., a personal friend of and political donor to the governor, was given an extension on a prison maintenance contract over the objection of prison officials. At the time Roberts defended the contracting process as aboveboard and said his resignation two months later had nothing to do with that controversy.

While Roberts has taught courses in public budgeting at Duke, he has no experience as a permanent faculty member or in university administration.

“I think there’s a lot of concern about how effective someone could be iff they don’t have experience in higher education, and particularly in leadership and higher education,” said Beth Moracco, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty.

“We think about how complex the job is and how many different areas you have to understand,” Moracco said.  “I mean, UNC is a $1.2 billion research enterprise and there are world class, academic and professional units. It’s just such a multifaceted, complex job that someone would need to step into and be able to engage with right. That is hard. The concerns I’m hearing from faculty are that it just wouldn’t be possible for someone without experience to step into that.”

Prominent faculty members at UNC-Chapel Hill are also expressing concerns that Roberts as an interim, and potentially permanent chancellor, represents a further politicization of the university.

In 2021, the board of governors chose one of its own members, Darrel Allison, as chancellor of Fayetteville State University after a widely criticized search process. The appointment of Allison, who had no experience in higher education beyond his role as a political appointee, was seen as a harbinger of things to come — a precedent for a politically appointed board putting its own members in top campus leadership positions, irrespective of their credentials.

“I think it’s probably more of a coincidence than a trend,” Boliek said of Roberts being the second member of the system’s board of governors appointed to lead a campus.

A headshot of David Boliek
David Boliek, member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. (Image: UNC-Chapel Hill)

“There have been criticisms of  appointees to the board of governors, basically that criticism being they lack qualifications to be on the board of governors,” Boliek said. “I certainly believe that all the members of the board of governors are qualified to be members of the board of governors. I think with the appointment of Chancellor Allison and now the appointment of Lee Roberts as interim, I think it speaks to the antithesis of that criticism. There are qualified people at the board of governors level.”

“It’s a nonpartisan job,” Roberts said in a UNC-Chapel Hill press release Friday, stressing he is an unaffiliated voter. “I plan to do it in a nonpartisan way. To be effective in this role, you need to be able to work with Republicans and Democrats and independents and everybody else. That’s what I’ve done in my past roles.”

Political trends and “political meddling”

The nonprofit Coalition for Carolina launched a petition this week asking the UNC Board of Governors to stop “improper interference” by campus level trustees the group believes led to Guskiewicz’s departure.

“Make no mistake,” the petition reads. “Kevin Guskiewicz is leaving Carolina – for Michigan State – because he had enough of political meddling. Michigan State won. We lost.””

“Chancellor Guskiewicz put integrity, academic excellence and the good of our campus community ahead of partisan politics,” the petition reads. “For that, the current Board of Trustees hounded him out of Chapel Hill.”

During his time leading Carolina, Guskiewicz clashed with members of both his university’s board of trustees and the system’s board of governors.

In June, members of both boards publicly criticized Guskiewicz for saying the U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred the consideration of race as an admissions criterion at UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard University was “not the outcome we hoped for.” Some even said the university should never have defended the practice in court. Guskiewicz had to defend the remark and his philosophy of higher education at a meeting of the board of governors during which members pressed him on whether he agreed with the court’s decision.

It was an uncomfortable moment for a chancellor whose university fought to keep race as a factor in admissions — but who understands that political appointees to whom he answers largely oppose it.

Guskiewicz replied that as an educator with decades of classroom experience, he has seen the difference a more diverse student body makes to all students on campus and their readiness to engage with the larger world.

“The lens by which I view this through is my experience at a place like Carolina, where those different lived experiences and a curriculum coming to life when you have students in that classroom who can contribute in a meaningful way that I think prepares our students to become active participants in our democracy,” Guskiewicz said.

“The bottom line is a decision has been made,” Guskiewicz said. “And we will abide by that decision.”

In July, members of both boards publicly criticized the plan Guskiewicz announced to cover tuition and fees for UNC-Chapel Hill students whose families make less than $80,000 per year. Some claimed Guskiewicz should have consulted with both boards before launching the program, while others had political and philosophical objections to launching it at all.

In choosing Guskiewicz as the next chancellor of Michigan State University, that campus’ board of trustees highlighted the very stances that put him at odds with members of the UNC system board and UNC-Chapel Hill’s trustees, including his commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and the tuition plan he announced during his final months as chancellor.

Holden Thorp, former chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill, told Newsline this week that it seems, as with former chancellor Carol Folt before him, Guskiewicz began looking more toward his future in his final months on the job than toward pleasing or appeasing the political appointees on those boards.

“Ultimately, you have to worry about your national reputation maybe more than your local reputation, once you figure out that it might be impossible to continue to thread the needle where you are,” Thorp said.

As Thorp wrote in a column on Guskiewicz’s departure, the last three UNC-Chapel Hill chancellors — himself included — ultimately left Carolina and found more money, success and job security elsewhere.

Feeling he had the support of his trustees but not the board of governors, Thorp left Carolina in 2013 to become provost at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and later become editor-in-chief of Science magazine.

Facing criticism of her handling of the toppling of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument on Chapel Hill’s campus in 2018, Folt resigned as Chapel Hill’s leader. She went on to become president of the University of Southern California.

Guskiewicz will take the top leadership role at Michigan State on March 4 with a base salary of $975,000 and $150,000 in deferred annual compensation for his retirement. He currently makes $657,743 per year as chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“In North Carolina, we’re all seen as failed chancellors who got run out,” Thorp wrote. “In the other 49 states, we’re survivors who did the best we could in the midst of pandemonium. If the boards continue their ‘look at me’ behavior with the new chancellor, he or she will be welcome to join our club.”

It’s now clear any new chancellor is going to have to pass muster with the legislature’s GOP majority, Thorp told Newsline this week.

“Everything I’ve heard about Lee Roberts is that he’s a really smart guy and and is very level-headed,” Thorp said.  “You know they’re going to pick a Republican. So of the options they had, this looks as rational as possible.”

“The academics are going to be upset that it’s not an academic, and they’re going to worry about the ideological stuff,” Thorp said. “But as I’ve said, repeatedly, the Republicans won the state. They get to do this kind of thing.”