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UNC Chancellor announced as next president of Michigan State University

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UNC Chancellor announced as next president of Michigan State University

Dec 08, 2023 | 9:17 am ET
By Joe Killian
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UNC Chancellor announced as next president of Michigan State University
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Michigan State University announced UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz will become its next president. (Source: MSU)

Michigan State University announced UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz will become its next president during a Friday morning meeting of that university’s board of trustees. The board unanimously approved Guskiewicz’s hire with a starting date of March 4.

His last day at UNC-Chapel Hill will be January 12.

Trustees at Michigan State praised Guskiewicz’s leadership at UNC-Chapel Hill and said they have high hopes for him as their university’s 22nd president.

“Dr. Guskiewicz doesn’t know it yet, but he has always been a Spartan in spirit,” said trustees board Chair Rema Vassar Friday.

Guskiewicz, speaking remotely in the livestreamed meeting, thanked the board for its confidence.

“I intend to fully justify that confidence in the days and years ahead,” Guskiewicz said.

A photo of UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz addressing the Michigan State University Board of Trustees
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz addresses the Michigan State University Board of Trustees remotely Friday as he was named that university’s next president. (Photo: Screen grab from remote meeting)

Having spent his entire adult life in higher education, Guskiewicz said, he’s seen the transformative power of higher education to prepare young people to become citizens and leaders. That’s something MSU does very well, Guskiewicz said, pointing to its outstanding faculty and history of innovative research.

Guskiewicz’s candidacy for MSU’s top leadership position was first reported by that university’s student newspaper, The State News, last month. Since acknowledging he was weighing taking the position, Guskiewicz has fielded pleas for him to stay from faculty members, students and at least one UNC-Chapel Hill trustee. Top UNC System leadership, including UNC System President Peter Hans and members of the trustees, have also called the MSU presidency a good opportunity for him and say they understand why he may decide to take it.

The revelation that Guskiewicz had applied for the presidency at MSU took faculty members, students, alumni and even the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees by surprise. His name was leaked as one of two finalists in a search process MSU trustees have described as compromised and “botched.” The other finalist, University of Texas at San Antonio President Taylor Eighmy, dropped out after the leak.

Some faculty members and trustees told Newsline this week the leak was embarrassing, particularly in light of ongoing feuding on the politically elected board of trustees and years of high-profile scandals at the university.

“I am aware that Michigan State University has faced more than its share of challenges in recent years,” Guskiewicz told trustees in Friday’s meeting. “Yet I see a strong diversity with an inspiring historical foundation that can reach new levels of excellence through its powerful commitment to student success, knowledge and land-grant service.”

Guskiewicz was received enthusiastically by MSU’s trustees and members of its presidential search committee Friday, including representatives of the student body and faculty.

“Kevin, I just want to say you’re going to look so much better in MSU green than Carolina blue,” said trustee Dennis Denno.

Guskiewicz recorded a short video for the MSU community which was released after the announcement was made.

Wearing a Michigan State green necktie, Guskiewicz said he looks forward to bring

“I pursued this opportunity because I believe my values and vision align to well with those of Michigan State,” Guskiewicz said in the video. “And I share and admire your deep commitment to transforming lives through the power of teaching, research and outreach.”

A commitment to diversity

Members of UNC-Chapel Hill’s board of trustees told Newsline Friday their first communication from Guskiewicz on his decision came in the form of an e-mail moments after the MSU announcement had been made public.

Michigan State trustees praised a Guskiewicz’s record of leadership, highlighting his connections to and communication with UNC-Chapel Hill faculty and students and his commitment on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

“To name just a couple of his accomplishments, Dr. Guskiewicz appointed a special commission to examine UNC’s 230-year history with race and racism and recommended ways to redress harm and move communities forward,” Vassar said in Friday’s meeting. “Before that, he launched the first ever faculty diversity advisory committee.”

A photo of Rema Vassar, chair of the Michigan State University Board of Trustees, speaking remotely at the board's Friday meeting
Rema Vassar, chair of the Michigan State University Board of Trustees, speaking remotely at the board’s Friday meeting to elect Kevin Guskiewicz as the university’s new president (Photo: Screen grab from remote meeting)

DEI efforts are just one area in which Guskiewicz butted heads with UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees, the UNC System Board of Governors and the Republican majority in the North Carolina General Assembly. In April, the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations required the UNC System and its 17 campuses to provide information on all DEI and accessibility training programs they employ.

The request included a lengthy list of terms to define DEI that reads like a round-up of recent obsessions of conservative activists:

“‘Diversity’, ‘equity’, ‘inclusion’, ‘accessibility’, ‘racism’, ‘anti-racism’, ‘anti-racist’, ‘oppression’, ‘internalized oppression’, ‘systemic racism’, ‘sexism’, ‘gender’, ‘LGBTQ+’, ‘white supremacy’, ‘unconscious bias’, ‘bias’, ‘microaggressions’, ‘critical race theory’, ‘intersectionality’, or ‘social justice.’”

The move, part of a national wave of anti-DEI moves in Republican-led states, is one of many items that faculty, students and alumni have highlighted in voicing concerns that conservative politics are increasingly intruding upon how universities operate.

Governor Roy Cooper took to Twitter/X Thursday to weigh in on Guskiewicz’s possible departure, its causes, and concerns the search for his successor will be politicized.

“As the nation’s leading public university, UNC attracts worldwide leaders to the office of chancellor,” Cooper wrote. “But meddling from legislative appointees is driving them away. Because the GOP legislature seized University Trustee appointments and installed hard right appointees on the UNC Board of Governors, our reputation is beginning to suffer.” 

“A change to add diversity of opinion and more respect for higher education is needed in University governance and the answer is in The Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina,” Cooper wrote.

Cooper created the bipartisan commission last year by executive order. Republican leadership in the legislature, which appoints members to the UNC System Board of Governors and the campus-level boards of trustees, dismissed the commission and its conclusions before it had held its first meeting.

Carol Folt, now president of the University of Southern California, was the chancellor Guskiewicz followed at UNC-Chapel Hill. In an MSU press release Friday morning, Folt praised Guskiewicz.

“I’ve known Kevin for more than a decade; he’s one of the most talented, visionary and ethical leaders in all of higher education,” Folt said in the statement. “He leads with compassion, decisiveness and integrity; he builds consensus across differences; he lives opportunity and equity every day; and he puts students at the center.”

“He is always looking for bold ideas to build the future, and the community will love working with him,” Folt said. “As a proud Midwesterner myself, whose own career was launched as a postdoc at MSU, I am so excited for Kevin, for MSU and for the people of Michigan.”

Looking toward new leadership at UNC-Chapel Hill

There was no immediate announcement of an interim chancellor from the UNC System Friday morning. UNC System President Peter Hans will make that selection “in the next week or so” before forming a search committee to find the university’s next permanent leader, a system spokesperson told newsline.

“Chancellor Guskiewicz has led UNC-Chapel Hill with grace and goodwill through some very difficult moments, and he’s leaving the University in stronger shape than when he arrived,” said Hans in a written statement Friday morning.

“I join faculty, staff, students, and alumni at Carolina in deep appreciation for his leadership,” Hans said in the statement. “Kevin is a brilliant researcher, a kind colleague, and a mentor to many young people. The Guskiewicz family have been good friends to me and I know that Kevin and Amy will remain devoted Tar Heels.”

Since Guskiewicz’s possible exit was first reported last month, much attention has been focused on a possible successor.

The committee Hans appoints will include representatives from the student body and faculty and will be tasked with recommending candidates for the position. The university’s board of trustees will then send Hans an unranked slate of at least three finalists, from which he will choose one to present to the UNC System Board of Governors for a vote.

UNC-Chapel Hill trustees and members of the board of governors tell Newsline they’ve heard persistent rumors the interim may be UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Chris Clemens, UNC-Chapel Hill Trustee Malcolm Turner or UNC Board of Governors member Lee Roberts.

Any member of the board of trustees or board of governors would have to resign their seat in order to become chancellor — either or on an interim or permanent basis. As of Friday morning, no member had yet resigned.

Members of both governing boards told Newsline they dismiss rumors that Hans has already decided on the permanent chancellor before the search committee has undertaken its work. Faculty members, students and alumni are already questioning whether Roberts, who has no administrative experience in higher education but is politically well connected as a one-time budget director for former Republican Governor Pat McCrory, will be chosen simply because his politics align best with the Republican dominated legislature and its political appointees on governing boards.

“I think it is way too early for anyone to be saying a decision has been made, and I can tell you I haven’t been part of any discussions about this yet,” a member of the board of governors told Newsline this week.