Is UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor's job in jeopardy? Trustees chair, faculty chair disagree

Posted July 14, 2021 1:40 p.m. EDT
Updated July 15, 2021 11:37 a.m. EDT

— The new chairman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Board of Trustees said Wednesday that the rumors of Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz's imminent demise are greatly exaggerated.

But Mimi Chapman, chair of the university's Faculty Council, said Guskiewicz's job has become so tenuous that officials are bandying about names for a potential replacement.

Speculation that the new board would push for UNC System President Peter Hans and the system's Board of Governors to fire Guskiewicz have been so rampant this week that the Faculty Council held an emergency meeting Wednesday afternoon.

Chapman told colleagues during the meeting that she learned over the weekend that "Kevin's performance would be evaluated in the coming days" by trustees and that officials were considering Clayton Somers and John Hood as possible interim chancellor.

Somers is UNC-Chapel Hill's vice chancellor for public affairs and secretary and a former top aide to state House Speaker Tim Moore. Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank, and president of the nonprofit John William Pope Foundation, both of which were created by Republican donor Art Pope, a member of the UNC Board of Governors.

"It is my strong belief that now is not the time for a leadership change on our campus," Chapman said.

Dave Boliek, who was unanimously elected as the new chairman of the Board of Trustees on Wednesday, dismissed speculation over Guskiewicz's job security, saying he doesn't know how the rumors started.

"The Board of Trustees cannot hire or fire the chancellor," Boliek said. "We do set policy, and we do make substantive decisions on behalf of the university in very specific areas. But the Board of Trustees has no authority to remove the chancellor."

He sidestepped when WRAL News asked whether he supports Guskiewicz, but he noted that no one on the UNC Board of Governors nor any other university leaders have talked with him about the chancellor's job status.

"The intent of this board [is] to move the university forward, to do what is in the best interest of the taxpayers in the 100 counties in the state of North Carolina, to take into account and work with the faculty," Boliek said.

Guskiewicz declined to discuss the rumors.

"I've got a job to do here leading this great university," he said during a break of the Board of Trustees meeting. "That's what I've been focused on."

UNC-Chapel Hill has been beset by racial tension in recent weeks, highlighted by the bitter fight over giving a tenured faculty position at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. A UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and reporter for The New York Times, she is most known for her work on the 1619 Project, which looks at American history through the lens of slavery and its lasting impact on the country.

The previous Board of Trustees delayed the tenure vote for months, creating a backlash among students and faculty, as well as journalists nationwide. Her supporters called the lack of action on the issue racist, maintaining that her work on the 1619 Project was the sole reason she wasn't immediately granted tenure, as others in her position had been.

Although the Board of Trustees voted 9-4 to grant Hannah-Jones tenure on June 30 – the board's last day in office – she later declined and took a tenured position at Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C., instead.

Boliek and John Preyer, who was elected vice chairman of the board on Wednesday, were two of the four votes against tenure.

Boliek declined to discuss his tenure vote, saying UNC-Chapel Hill needs to move forward.

"The marketplace of ideas is what this university has always been about, and we absolutely support the diversity of faculty and the diversity of students," he said. "I think this board is prepared to support the faculty in recruiting diverse viewpoints from all spectrums."

During the tenure fight, Guskiewicz was criticized by faculty for not openly supporting Hannah-Jones.

Still, Jay Smith, a history professor and vice president of the UNC-Chapel Hill chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said firing the chancellor "would be a bad thing."

"Even though I’m not a fan of how our chancellor has handled this whole [Nikole Hannah-Jones] situation, this would just be further evidence of meddling in campus affairs. It would not be healthy," Smith said.

Guskiewicz also has come under fire from faculty in the past year for some of the moves he made during the pandemic, such as reopening campus last fall after local public health officials advised against it.

The AAUP even called for Guskiewicz to resign several months ago.

"There are a number of other things in which he has just been very, very secretive and, at times it seemed, dishonest about how he was dealing with things behind closed doors," Smith said. "But shared governance calls on boards of governors and boards of trustees to respect the autonomy of campuses, to respect the voices of faculty and the wider campus community. And if they were to step in and remove Kevin Guskiewicz now, arbitrarily and in a knee-jerk fashion, because they don’t like the political upshot of this controversy, that would be terrible violation of procedure."

UNC Professor Deb Aikat said there isn't motivation for change.

"We all got together and we were in our resolve we really don’t want change at this time," Aikat said.

Deans of various UNC-Chapel Hill schools sent a letter to the Board of Trustees expressing support for Guskiewicz, Chapman said, and the Faculty Council drafted and approved its own resolution affirming their confidence in the chancellor and stating that changing leadership would be "deeply destabilizing" for the entire state, not just the campus.

"Our chancellor is not perfect, yet he is someone we know," Chapman said. "He couldn't have assumed his post at a more difficult moment."

Even controversial donor Walter Hussman, who some believe is the reason that Hannah-Jones did not accept tenure at UNC, wrote a letter saying he believes Guskiewicz is the right person to lead the university.

“I think he is an honorable person a person of integrity I think he is intelligent and thoughtful," Hussman said.

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