Trust, rumors and tough decisions as UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor weighs MSU presidency ⋆

In the nearly three weeks since UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz confirmed he is weighing taking the presidency at Michigan State University, he has not officially resigned his position, saying only that he is still considering his next move. Meanwhile, trustees, faculty members, students and even legislators have urged him to either continue leading UNC or move on.

Michigan State University’s board of trustees earlier led a botched chancellor search in which confidential information was leaked and another final candidate dropped out. That board has not officially decided on the troubled university’s next leader.

UNC System President Peter Hans, who will unilaterally choose an interim chancellor should Guskiewicz leave, has made no public statements about that choice or who might sit on the search committee to vet candidates for the university’s next permanent chancellor.

“What there is, is plenty of rumor and innuendo,” said Marty Kotis, a member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and former member of the UNC System Board of Governors. “There’s a lot of rumor mongering around this stuff — somebody hears something, they take it as a fact, they repeat it as a fact.”

 Trustee Marty Kotis (Photo: UNC) 

Kotis said he’s heard plenty of possible scenarios: that the interim could be UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Chris Clemens, UNC-Chapel Hill Trustee Malcolm Turner or UNC Board of Governors member Lee Roberts. Other names in the mix include sitting chancellors at other UNC System campuses. He’s heard people say the interim appointment will ultimately be chosen as a permanent appointment, even before a search committee has been formed or had a single meeting.

“I have not heard that from anybody who actually knows the mind of Peter Hans and who he may be appointing as an interim,” Kotis said. “And the Board of Governors would not already be having discussions about a permanent replacement, either. I think people are not really aware of how this actually works.”

Kotis served on the system’s board of governors when Hans was hired as president and has maintained a warm relationship with him. Like most good leaders, Kotis said, Hans thinks contingency planning is important. He’s also known for prizing and publicly emphasizing the need for confidentiality in searches and appointments.

“I am sure he has names in mind for various interims at various times, and should,” Kotis said. “And Peter has the authority to choose interim chancellors. But any discussion about who that is, whether it’s among the trustees or anyone else outside of Peter, that’s speculation.”

No one has applied for the chancellorship; nor has a search committee been formed. For those reasons, Kotis said, he would find it “highly unlikely” that Hans might have already decided on Chapel Hill’s next permanent chancellor.

“There’s a game that gets played”

Two members of the UNC System Board of Governors spoke with NC Newsline this week, asking that their names be withheld because they are not authorized to speak for the system or weigh in on confidential searches.

According to a new policy on searches adopted in May, Hans will choose the members of any chancellor search committee and, in consultation with that chair, select 13 voting members. As president, Hans will himself sit on the committee. Previously members of the UNC System Board of Governors, were not allowed to act as voting members on such committees, but they are now required to do so.

The committee will advance an unranked slate of candidates to the campus board of trustees, who will in turn present at least three unranked candidates to the system president. The system president will then present a final nominee to the board of governors for a vote.

One provision of the new search policy has led some to conclude candidates from within North Carolina, and especially candidates already within the UNC System, will be favored.

“The president, in consultation with the officers of the Board of Governors, shall undertake reasonable efforts to develop potential chancellor candidates within the UNC System and shall ensure that opportunities for chancellor vacancies are promoted in a manner that encourages interest from well-qualified candidates who are current residents of the State of North Carolina,” the provision reads.

Several member of the UNC Board of Governors and UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees said they have heard people quote that provision in speculating UNC System functionaries and members of governing boards will be considered first when chancellor seats come open.

“The truth is, some people [on these boards] do want these jobs and some have good reasons for starting a rumor,” said one of the board members. “Sometimes a board member will do that themselves, if they’re looking for a job and they want to get it out there. We’ve seen that. Sometimes someone will say it’s going to be anyone — we’ve heard [N.C. House Speaker] Tim Moore was going to be chancellor over here, or that politician was going to be made president of the system. And then when it doesn’t happen, everyone’s relieved because at least it wasn’t that person. There’s a game that gets played that way.”

Another board member said they understand why people are concerned. Just two years ago, Darrell Allison, then a member of the UNC Board of Governors, left his board seat to become a candidate in a chancellor search at Fayetteville State University that was already well underway. Though trustees said he wasn’t among their top candidates, he was ultimately chosen for the university’s top leadership position despite having no background in higher education beyond being a political appointee.

“I think that was handled very badly,” the board of governors member said. “Whether or not you like Darrell — and I do and I think he’s done a good job — I think that just confirmed peoples’ feelings that this is all political, it’s all about who you know and not about qualifications or giving people who are part of the community and the university a real role to play in choosing a chancellor. It just made it look like we’re handing out jobs to ourselves, to our own members. So now every time there’s a chancellor search, you have that hanging over you.”

But an appointment at a small and struggling historically Black college or university (HBCU) is one thing, the board member said. The recent appointment of Kimberly van Noort, a UNC System office favorite who was made interim chancellor and then given the full-time job at UNC-Asheville, might also get a minimum of scrutiny.

But UNC-Chapel Hill is not a struggling regional university, the board member said. It was the nation’s first public university and is the flagship university in a 16-campus system. Its graduates often go on to powerful political positions within state and federal government, in legal circles and in the media. The public’s interest — and interest from a vast and influential network of alumni — are likely to lead to much more scrutiny of any chancellor search and how it is conducted.

“If this is a political choice, if it is seen as a patronage pick when you’re likely looking at one of the most competitive fields of candidates we are likely to see for any chancellor search at any of our universities, it is just going to destroy all credibility,” the board member said.

“There are some members who just think they’re always going to say it’s political, it’s always going to be, ‘They’re destroying our universities, vote Democrat,’ no matter what we do, so why not just put in whoever we want?” the board member said. “But if you’ve been around a while and you’ve seen how some of these things go, you really have to make these choices carefully. I think Peter Hans is smart enough to know that.”

While some members of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and UNC System Board of Governors dismiss speculation the decision has already been made, they aren’t necessarily dismissing some of the names about which people are speculating.

Figures like Clemens, Turner and Roberts could all make good leaders, UNC-Chapel Hill Trustee Dave Boliek told Newsline this week.

a headshot of David Boliek UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees Chair David Boliek. (Image: UNC-Chapel Hill) 

Among those three, Roberts — a budget director under former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory — lacks any university administrative experience. But Boliek said that’s not an issue for him, when looking at potential leaders of a university.

“I would point to Mitch Daniels as a president, who I think did an excellent job at Purdue [University],” Boliek said, referring to the former Republican governor of Indiana who served as president of one of that state’s flagship public universities from 2013 until the end of last year.

Daniels’ presidency, coming directly on the heels of his last term as governor, has been held up by some as a further dangerous melding of higher education and politics, and by others as an example of how politicians and business leaders with no experience in academia can be credible university leaders.

“It really depends what you mean by ‘credible,’” Boliek said. “The President of the United States, judged by Republican leadership, is poor, and vice versa. So it really depends what you define as credibility.”

“I don’t think there is necessarily a requirement that the head of a top research university be someone from academia,” Boliek said. “Who the best person is for the job would depend on the list of candidates and who is interested in doing the job.”

Kotis also said he wouldn’t dismiss any candidate strictly because of a lack of experience at universities or within academia.

“I think there are a lot of people from a lot of areas who can provide effective leadership,” Kotis said.

“From crisis to crisis”

As students, faculty members, alumni and political appointees in North Carolina debate potential successors for Guskiewicz, the situation at Michigan State University is far from healthy or transparent.

The board has a meeting scheduled for Dec. 15, with an agenda that says it will consider a personnel matter. But trustees and faculty at the university said they aren’t sure what will come of it.

Michigan State’s trustees are not politically appointed but directly elected in partisan elections. While it can be argued that such a system makes trustees more directly accountable to the public, it can lead to conflict, particularly during times of crisis.

Michigan State has had no shortage of those moments in recent years.

As with Carolina, Michigan State’s trustees have been accused of bringing political pressure and interfering with administrators. The campus has had six presidents since 2018, when former Olympic gymnastics physician and university doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced for crimes related to child pornography and sexual assault.

Then MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon left when she was drawn into — and eventually charged — in an investigation that examined which university administrators knew about Nassar’s years of abuse. Charges against Simon were eventually dropped.

Former Republican Gov. John Engler followed Simon as interim leader, but he resigned in 2019, his tenure also dominated by the Nassar abuse scandal.

Another interim president, Satish Udpa, took the helm of the university until Samuel Stanley was chosen for the permanent position in 2019. Stanley left in 2022 after clashing with trustees over an investigation into alleged Title IX reporting failures over which the dean of the university’s college of business was forced to resign.

Teresa Woodruff has acted as interim president at MSU since, but decided against seeking the permanent position.

A member of the university’s board of trustees, who asked that their name be withheld in order to discuss internal board debate, said few blamed Woodruff.

“If you look at what has been going on and the way that every crisis is used as a political cudgel, you can see why we’ve had a problem hiring and retaining leaders here,” the trustee said.

The current bungled chancellor search process is yet another example, the board member said. Last month, the names of Guskiewicz and University of Texas at San Antonio President Taylor Eighmy were leaked as finalists and made public in a report by the campus newspaper, The State News. Eighmy reacted by dropping out and Guskiewicz soon faced questions — including from his own trustees — over his pursuing jobs elsewhere without their knowledge.

“These processes are supposed to be confidential,” the MSU trustee told Newsline this week. “When you have a board that can’t keep these things confidential — and I would say some who don’t even want to keep them confidential — it really hobbles your ability to have a good candidate pool, to feel like you are getting the very best candidate.”

If the board ultimately offers Guskiewicz the presidency, the trustee said, there will always be those members who feel he was the final candidate not on his merits but because someone leaked confidential information, tainted the search, and prompted another candidate to drop out.

“That’s not fair to [Guskiewicz], to make him begin that way, and it’s again something for our board to fight about and for people to hold a grudge over if he’s hired, the entire time he is here.”

If Guskiewicz is looking for an exit from a politically tense environment that features tension with governing boards, the trustee said, Michigan State may be more a change of venue than an actual change of circumstance.

“I think we have a really trying environment here right now, just going from crisis to crisis” the trustee said. “I know from reading up on his situation at Carolina that he is used to that, but I’m not sure he’s used to this.”

A matter of trust

If Guskiewicz doesn’t make the move to Michigan State, things may become even more difficult for him at Carolina.

While he’s had a rocky tenure, often butting heads with political appointees on both the Board of Governors and Board of Trustees, he would now be leading the campus with his governing boards knowing he’s been looking for a position elsewhere.

Kotis, Boliek and other trustees told Newsline this week that their board hadn’t known Guskiewicz was looking. Finding out through the media creates an issue of trust between the chancellor and trustees, Kotis said.

“You know, if he’s looking somewhere else it’s really hard for that job search not to cloud his actions here,” Kotis said. “Because you would then be looking at all of your actions through the lens of, ‘Well, how is this going to affect my next job?’”

Trustees would have to wonder, Kotis said, whether actions Guskiewicz takes now are in the best interest of the university or are part of his auditioning for a position he’s pursuing elsewhere.

“I think that’s a little bit of a challenge,” Kotis said. “I think if we’re asking him is he looking, and he’s saying ‘no,’ but yet, he really is… there’s the trust issue then that can come up.”

There’s also the question of whether time and energy Guskiewicz should be spending on UNC-Chapel Hill business is instead going into searching for his next position, Kotis said. Guskiewicz can take a one-year paid sabbatical, Kotis said, during which an interim chancellor could be appointed. That could be a potential solution, Kotis said.

“If he’s looking, then he could spend all of his time focused on that, instead of trying to balance both,” Kotis said.

[Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Lee Roberts’ higher education experience. It has been changed to reflect that he does not have professional administrative experience in higher education.]

authored by Joe Killian
First published at

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