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Search for UNC's 12th Chancellor kicks off at the Carolina Inn

Chancellor Carol Folt takes questions during the media availability of the UNC Board of Trustees meeting on Thursday, Jan. 31 2018 at the Carolina Inn.
Buy Photos Chancellor Carol Folt takes questions during the media availability of the UNC Board of Trustees meeting on Thursday, Jan. 31 2018 at the Carolina Inn.

When Chancellor Michael Hooker died in office in 1999, Richard Stevens of the Board of Trustees helmed the search committee for a replacement. Twenty years later, Stevens was once-again named chairperson of the BOT, on the same day that the search for UNC’s next chancellor officially began.

Trustees met at the Carolina Inn on the morning of Monday, July 8 for a recently-scheduled meeting, where UNC system President Bill Roper briefed the trustees on the now-begun chancellor hiring process. 

It will take place over the next eight-or-so months and incorporate a search committee made up of a wide range of stakeholders, who will be appointed by Roper and the chairperson of the search committee, who is often the BOT chairperson. 

Kevin Guskiewicz has been serving as UNC's interim chancellor for the past five months, ever since former Chancellor Carol Folt was ousted prematurely — her initial plan to leave at the end of the spring semester was accelerated by the Board of Governors after they learned she authorized the removal of Silent Sam's vacant pedestal from McCorkle Place.

Trustees, faculty, students, staff, alumni and community members are all expected to be included in the search committee, which will serve as an advisory body and is “tasked with recruiting a diverse pool of qualified candidates,” according to the search guidelines Roper distributed to the trustees. 

Monday’s visit from UNC system president Roper was just the beginning of the search process — a formal kick-off. The search committee hasn't been staffed. 

One of the next items of business will be hiring an external search firm. The University will foot the bill for the firm’s vendor contract, but the system's human resources will coordinate the selection of the firm. 

“If you are in the executive search business, your merchandise is the names of those candidates,” said Frank LoMonte, the director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, and advocate for open government and free press. 

“What has happened in recent years is the process has been hijacked by private head-hunting search firms,” he said. 

The external search firm will generate the names of around 15-20 candidates in the first round, and the search committee will whittle the list to 8-10.

Then come a series of “airport interviews” — which the guidelines say should be held at an off-site location such as a hotel, ideally close to an airport — lasting over an hour, and, LoMonte said, are conducted privately to prevent the names of candidates from leaking.

“They don’t want their candidates being beat up by having their faults discussed in an open process,” he said. “They take place at an airport Marriott so the person won’t get spotted.”

The business of the search firms depends on the integrity of their candidates’ names being protected. If word got out a candidate was shopping offers, it would not only be damaging to the candidate’s current employment but would violate the intense demand for confidentiality throughout the process, LoMonte said. 

Everyone involved with the search will be required to sign a confidentiality agreement. “The academic circle is small — even an innocent or vague remark could be enough for someone to identify the candidate,” the search guidelines say. 

Frank Baumgartner, a professor in the political science department, said even though it’s not ideal for the chancellor search to occur behind closed doors, privacy is inevitable given the candidates' high profiles. 

He added the next chancellor should be equipped to reestablish trust in UNC. 

“I think it’s been tattered in the last two years of events, particularly in regards to the police,” Baumgartner said. 

Around four months into the process, four to five finalists will be invited to campus visits. Every person they interact with will be preordained by the search committee, and required to sign a confidentiality agreement.

“This visit allows the candidate to discreetly see and get a feel for the constituent institution as well as the surrounding community,” the the search guidelines said.

When the search committee has three names left, the slate gets approved by the BOT, then handed over to the system's HR department. 

The guidelines say the three finalists are put through a rigorous and extensive background investigative report conducted by a third-party vendor.

Roper said the checks will be on par with FBI investigations for federal government positions, and will be an expensive endeavor — also paid for by UNC.

With UNC out of the loop, the final decision is left to Roper, who recommends one person to the Board of Governors, who then approve the selection.

LoMonte is concerned that there aren't any opportunities for the public to interact with the search process. 

“The only way to tell if the person actually has the skills to interact with the public is to watch them interact with the public,” he said. 

To comply with policy, the guidelines urge the search committee chairperson to appoint a campus forum subcommittee, offering the public the chance to speak its mind on desired qualifications for the chancellor position. 

The process by which chancellors are chosen was extensively reconditioned after a search for Western Carolina University’s chancellor plunged into chaos. A BOG member identified a candidate to an agency owned by a friend, who then looked into the finalist and dug up controversial information that paused the search process.

N.C. Policy Watch reported that the BOG member, Tom Fetzer, had spoken to then-president Margaret Spellings about serving as the interim chancellor at WCU, but someone else had already been chosen. 

The emphasis on confidentiality and the freezing-out of the public are new components that were added to the process after the failed WCU search. 

Richard Stevens, who was just appointed chairperson of the Board of Trustees, is preparing to guide UNC through a chancellor search for the second time. 

"Probably the most important thing this board will do in this next term is be involved in that process," he said. 

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