Folt greets UNC, meets tough job ahead
Tucked in a corner office within South Building, a very small woman sits behind a very big desk.
For her first day of work, she donned a Carolina blue and green dress with a white blazer, a UNC-themed symbol pinned to each lapel.
For her first lunch, she ventured out to Sutton’s Drug Store on Franklin Street, sampling its specialty burger and cherry Coke for the first time.
And when she headed back to her office, Chancellor Carol Folt — who stands 5 feet, one and three-quarters inches tall, by her own account — looked around at the walls that had just been painted Carolina blue in preparation for her arrival.
“There will be a lot for me to learn here,” she said, with a smile that never fell from her face.
With that smile, Folt officially began her tenure Monday as the University’s top administrator — a position that, for her predecessor, was plagued by a series of stringent budget cuts and ever-unfolding scandals.
The job also brings with it a $520,000 yearly salary — an increase from former Chancellor Holden Thorp’s $432,600 — as well as two federal investigations surrounding the University’s handling of sexual assault and a State Bureau of Investigation probe into the Department of African and Afro-American Studies.
But sitting in her office — “the beautiful chancellor’s as yet not even messy room” — on her first day, Folt said the recent scrutiny UNC has faced is a testament to its legacy. And it’s something, she said, that will prove only to strengthen the University as it moves forward.
“(UNC) has held itself to a very high standard throughout its life, so I think it’s very difficult when you face a challenge because you aspire for that standard,” she said.
“It’s been really difficult for people, and I think that’s actually to its credit.
“If people didn’t care, that would be a bad sign.”
First steps forward
Folt, who spent the past year serving in the top leadership role at Dartmouth College, said a piece of advice she received the night before her first day there rang true again this week.
“That very first day, the previous president had said to me, ‘You know, the one thing you’re not going to be expecting is how responsible you feel for every single person on campus,’” she said.
“And I had that (Sunday) night here as I realized, ‘Well, it really is now in my hands.’”
With the nation’s first public university firmly within her grasp, the former leader of a private institution said her first steps will involve meeting with a number of different people and groups on campus, getting to know them and what they would like to see.
She said she has been speaking with University leaders to discuss goals for things to be done in the future as well as what should be done immediately.
And mostly, she said, she hopes to maintain the values and traditions UNC already stands for.
“(UNC) invented what a university could be, and it has the opportunity to continue to reinvent it with every generation, with a legacy that maintains that kind of excellence,” Folt said.
“I think, at its core, that is what we should wake up every day thinking about.”
Challenges to address
With Folt finally settled into the position she was chosen for in April, many faculty members have already begun to think about the role the new chancellor is inheriting.
Lew Margolis, an associate professor of public health who has spoken out on the academic scandals in the past, said Folt’s primary responsibility is to advance the mission of the University by strengthening its scholarship, research and creativity.
But beyond that, the rest of the chancellor’s priorities, he said, should stem from the challenges that have cropped up in the past — among them, the unanswered questions surrounding sexual assault policies and the changing role of athletics in academics.
“Transparency has to be a paramount value,” Margolis said.
“If we think back on the athletics scandal, if we think back on the controversy over sexual assault policies, had there been transparency and had all of the relevant information been released, then we can deal with it.”
Jay Smith, a history professor who has been at the forefront of faculty discussions on restoring academic integrity, said there are a number of issues currently gnawing at the heart of the University’s integrity. He said an open acknowledgement of those problems at the start would set a positive tone.
“I have a feeling that there hasn’t been enough ventilation in South Building over the past few years,” Smith said.
“(Folt) could make a difference by signaling that she has an open-door policy, that she will listen to anyone who has problems to discuss, that she will reward truth-tellers instead of intimidating them or trying to keep them silent, which has happened around here.”
And with just three days in office behind her, Folt has indicated that she hopes to have conversations about past scandals moving forward — but that she recognizes there are other aspects of the University to address, too.
“For me, the most important things aren’t those issues,” Folt said. “They’re really students — what are they loving about their experience, and what are they excited about doing?
“I’m eager to find out more about that.”
‘Savor the joy’
Beside her new, still-uncluttered desk in South Building Monday, the new chancellor wrung her hands as she spoke.
“We’ve got work to do in some areas,” she said, specifically referencing recent problems surrounding sexual assault policies. “And we’ve got to let the process go in others.
“But that isn’t ever going to end — we’re always going to be thinking about that.”
Thorp, whose tenure as chancellor was cut short after just five years, offered his own advice for Folt, whom he said he’s had several extended conversations with throughout the transition.
“(Folt) needs to recognize that she is a really important public figure in North Carolina — some would even say the most important public figure — and that comes with a lot of burden and responsibility, but also a lot of joy,” he said.
“And she needs to savor the joy and try not to take the burdens too hard.”
Folt said as she looks forward to her chancellorship, she hopes to achieve lofty goals — academically, athletically and otherwise.
“I think that’s what we all believe — that if you do this right, you could set the example for the country on how to do it right. And frankly I think, ‘Well if not Carolina, who?’” she said.
“This is a place that could be that leader, but it takes a dream.
“And then it’s going to take hard work.”
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