“That turned out to be the luckiest thing that ever happened to me,” Ferrell said.
More than 50 years later, Ferrell is poised to retire from the career he fell into and the only university he’s ever served.
Apart from his one-year stint at Yale University for his master’s of law, Ferrell has never left UNC. He earned his bachelor’s and law degrees here, he accepted his first job here in 1964 at the Institute of Government and he never left.
“For one thing, I never got another job offer,” Ferrell said. “I never looked for one.”
But it was more than a lack of other options that kept Ferrell, 77, at UNC all this time.
“I liked what I was doing, the University seemed to like what I was doing, and I was getting frequent promotions and being paid well and, in later years, getting lots of recognition for having done things,” Ferrell said. “Why would I want to leave?”
Ferrell retired from the School of Government 10 years ago and transitioned his main focus to his role as Secretary of the Faculty, a position he’s held since 1996.
He says he’s accomplished all he wanted to in the position. He’s seen the establishment of a faculty newsletter, the computerization of faculty elections and the formation of what he calls a spectacular staff. Now, he says, it’s time to move on.
As secretary, Ferrell’s responsibilities extend beyond the two to three committee meetings per week to include the writing and delivery of special award citations.
In his 20 years on the job, Ferrell has presented close to 200 honorary degrees and distinguished alumnus awards. The people he met in the process, like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright or Bill Cosby, is what Ferrell will remember most, he says.
What Ferrell’s colleagues will remember most about him, on the other hand, is his gentle and wise counsel. They’ll tell you he knows every precedent, rule and regulation and can explain concisely how we got here and what steps should be taken next.
“People in completely different fields would go to Joe,” said Michael Smith, the dean of the School of Government, who has known Ferrell since clerking for him in the 1970s. “He was sort of a consultant and mentor to all of us in some way.”
Smith’s first piece of advice for Ferrell’s successor: “Have Joe’s number on speed dial.”
The Chancellor’s Advisory Committee is accepting nominations for Ferrell’s successor as secretary through Jan. 19. Peter Mucha, chairperson of the committee, said he could not comment on the qualities he’s seeking in applicants because the application period has already begun.
Mucha expects the Faculty Council will vote on a successor during the group’s February meeting. But some argue no successor can fully fill Ferrell’s shoes.
“Joe’s skillset is one that is irreplaceable,” said Katie Turner, faculty programs specialist for UNC’s Faculty Governance. “Having that knowledge and that experience and that memory is not something we can expect of every faculty.”
Ferrell said after his official retirement in June he’ll have more time to dedicate to his Episcopal church and spend at his beach house in Emerald Isle. Though Ferrell knows what he’ll do post-UNC, the University doesn’t quite know what it will do post-Joe.
“He is the institutional memory at Carolina,” Turner said. “Joe’s the constant.”