On the day that Chancellor Holden Thorp charted an ambitious path for the University, the only visible surprise was the retirement of an institution.
Jaws dropped around the Carolina Inn ballroom as trustees and observers alike received the surprise news that Brenda Kirby, the University secretary, will retire by the end of this year.
For the last 32 years, Kirby has managed chancellors’ schedules, made their appointments and made sure they were in touch with the right people — but more than that, she has “been running the University,” Thorp said.
“It is not an overstatement to say that Brenda has been running the University for 32 years,” he said. “There is no way to replace the institutional knowledge that she has.”
Kirby has been in her current role as secretary of the University since 1980. She joined the University in 1972.
In this time, she has served two medical deans, six chancellors, 32 student body presidents and 69 trustees.
Earning an annual salary of $150,000, Kirby has not only overseen schedules but also drawn up her experience to offer advice.
“My job has been to be the chancellor’s right hand,” she said. “From time to time, when an issue comes up it is my job to tell them what it is about and how it should be handled.”
In this capacity, Kirby has also been an adviser to student government, said Zealan Hoover, student body vice president.
“I must stop by at least once a week, if not more often, and sit down and talk to her,” he said. “She is really just a great mentor to students and genuinely interested in what we have to say and what is going on.”
Kirby’s retirement is going to leave an enormous role to fill in the chancellor’s office, said Wade Hargrove, chairman of the Board of Trustees.
“I don’t think Brenda is replaceable,” he said. “She is a wealth of institutional knowledge and wisdom.
“We will miss her greatly.”
That feeling was commonplace Thursday as word spread of her retirement.
“I’m very sorry to see her go,” said David Bevevino, former student body vice president. “She’s invaluable to the institution, so that’s going to be tough — big shoes to fill.”
Thorp said a replacement will be found as quickly as possible so Kirby can work with her replacement to ensure a seamless transition.
“The best we can hope for is that she will spend a great deal of time with the person that replaces her,” he said.
Kirby herself was more relaxed about the vacancy she will leave.
“I don’t have to worry about that,” she said. “I’ve always been told that you don’t choose your successors.”
Kirby said the highlight of her career at UNC has been working with the leaders who have molded the institution.
“I’ve worked with some awesome leaders in the Air Force ROTC, in the medical school and here in the chancellor’s office,” she said. “I have learned so much from their leadership and attributes that they have had.”
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