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The Daily Tar Heel

On the steps of South Building: The decade according to UNC's chancellors

At first, Holden Thorp declined a request to interview for the chancellor job. He said he still had a lot to learn about administration.

“It wasn't until they started calling me back after the first interview that I realized it was serious,” Thorp said, “And as far as accepting it — I can't imagine anybody who loves Carolina who wouldn't accept the job of chancellor.”

The chancellor job may come with campus-wide notoriety and a corner office in South Building, but it’s a high-profile position that places its occupants at the center of campus politics, compromises and controversies. In the past decade alone, two of UNC’s chancellors stepped down amidst controversies that threatened to define their careers at the University.  

How do you navigate the campus chaos of the NCAA scandal or the toppling of Silent Sam? How do you balance the wishes of students, faculty and legislators alike? How do you handle the responsibility of having the final word? 

The Daily Tar Heel spoke with all three UNC chancellors since 2010: former chancellor Thorp, former chancellor Carol Folt and current interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. Here’s what they had to say about their time at the helm:

Holden Thorp (July 2008 - June 2013)

When Thorp stepped in as UNC’s 10th chancellor, the state legislature was predominantly Democrat, “Viva La Vida” topped the Billboard Hot 100 and UNC had yet to find itself the subject of a seven-year saga for offering no-show classes to athletes and other students. 

The popular chemistry professor had quickly moved up the University ranks, serving first as chairperson of the chemistry department and then as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, among other positions.  

Thorp recalled being a fairly internally focused chancellor, prioritizing students, faculty and staff over off-campus constituencies like the state legislature or the UNC System Board of Governors.

“Some people who you'll talk to about me, if you do, will say that the problem with that was that I wasn't working the politicians and alumni as much as I should have,” Thorp told the DTH. “And if I had to do it over again I'd still do the same thing — my focus has always been on the people inside the organization.”

The 2010 election revealed the flaws in that approach, Thorp said.

“Suddenly there were all these people that I didn't know, and I never really managed to get up to speed with them,” Thorp said.

That was partly due to his focus on the campus, Thorp said, and partly caused by the beginnings of what would turn out to be one of the biggest challenges of his chancellorship.

In May 2010, UNC football player Marvin Austin tweeted from a Miami club, using lyrics from a Rick Ross song: “I live In club LIV so I get the tenant rate ... bottles comin' like its a giveaway.”

That tweet launched an NCAA investigation to determine if Austin and other players were receiving illegal benefits, ultimately revealing a host of phony paper classes that enrolled over 3,100 students, nearly half of them student athletes.

While presiding over the scandal, Thorp said he spent too long working the phones.

“What happens is that there comes a time when you have to stop trying to figure out how to bring everybody together and put your shoulders up and say 'I'm the chancellor of the University, and this is what we're going to do,' and then deal with the consequences,” Thorp said. “And I missed my cue to do that.”

In hindsight, there was no reason to hold back.

“There was a moment some point in there where I should have walked out on the steps of South Building and said 'This is what we're going to do' — because I ended up having to leave anyway,” Thorp said. “Everything was already at risk.”

In September 2012, Thorp announced that he would be stepping down.

Members of the Board of Trustees asked him to reconsider. Professors asked him to reconsider. He was, as the DTH wrote in 2012, supposed to lead the University for the next 20 years. 

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Thorp left UNC that June. He didn’t come back. He doesn’t regret it. 

“I think the decision looks better and better as time goes on,” Thorp said. He currently works as the editor-in-chief of Science Magazine. 

Carol Folt (July 2013 - January 2019)

Carol Folt, former interim president at Dartmouth College, took over the day after Thorp’s departure. 

She was immediately tasked with the aftermath of the NCAA scandal, criticism of the University’s sexual assault policy and what she called a “growing sense of disconnect” between the BOG, the state legislature and the campus community.

Despite Folt’s efforts, those rifts deepened with a variety of legislative decisions over the years — she listed House Bill 2, the shutdown of the Center for Civil Rights and state law on Confederate memorialization as some examples.

“With all the advances we made, and we were really making great ones, we were also confronting that,” Folt told the DTH. “That painful part of our history and our present.”

Those tensions reached a boiling point when activists toppled Silent Sam the night before the first day of classes in August 2018. The monument’s empty pedestal was the site of multiple demonstrations throughout the academic year, but state law prohibited Folt or the UNC administration from altering or permanently removing the monument from campus.

In the months following Silent Sam’s toppling, Folt made national news when she publicly apologized for the University’s involvement in slavery. 

“As chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I offer our University’s deepest apology for the injustices of slavery,” she told a crowd on University Day. “Our full acknowledgement of the slave people’s strength in the face of their suffering and our respect and indebtedness to them, and I reaffirm our University’s commitment to facing squarely and working to right the wrongs of history, so they’re never again inflicted.”

Folt and the BOT presented a plan in December to house Silent Sam in a history and education center on South Campus. After public backlash and criticism of the plan’s $5.3 million price tag, the BOG shot it down.  

The next month, Folt ordered the overnight removal of Silent Sam’s pedestal from McCorkle Place and announced that she would be stepping down in June. 

Looking back, Folt said she wishes she could have communicated more effectively in times of trouble. 

“We have mass emails, we're constrained by language that isn't really effective — I rarely feel like I can express things as well as I would have liked or as personally as I would have liked,” Folt said. “It wasn't that I didn't try. I tried pretty hard, and I am still trying.”

After Folt’s announcement, the BOG accelerated her departure to Jan. 31, 2019.

Among the things Folt misses most about campus: Gram-O-Rama, the Dance Marathon and the sight of Carolina Blue robes flooding into Kenan Memorial Stadium on commencement day. 

Folt said she thinks she did the right thing when it came to the monument and, like Thorp, she doesn’t regret leaving when she did. 

“I feel that I left at the right time,” said Folt, currently the president at the University of Southern California. “That was the time for me to move forward.” 

Kevin Guskiewicz (February 2019 - Present)

Similarly to Thorp, Guskiewicz served as the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences before serving as interim chancellor. Unlike Thorp, he felt reasonably prepared to take on the job.

“I felt like I collectively knew the University,” Guskiewicz told the DTH. “So I just felt as if the right thing to do was to step in when I was asked, and keep that momentum going to do the right thing for our students.”

Like Folt, Guskiewicz spent a lot of time addressing the issues of the chancellor before him. In April, Guskiewicz announced he created the position of vice chancellor for institutional integrity and risk management, and hired a new chief of UNC police, David L. Perry, in August.

Guskiewicz has spent a lot of time trying to “build a stronger partnership” with the General Assembly and Board of Governors, he told the DTH. While students, faculty and staff are a big part of the chancellor’s job, Guskeiwicz said, there are other constituencies he has to respond to as well.  

Guskiewicz has previously said that he would be interested in the permanent chancellor position. He knows that the job comes with tough decisions, he said, and he knows he’ll likely have to make a few himself.

“At the end of the day, the decisions rest with you as chancellor,” Guskiewicz said. “I think I'm a big believer in making informed decisions (and) being an inclusive leader, someone who wants as many voices at the table when those decisions are being made — but then recognizing that you're likely the person who's likely going to have to make that decision. And you're not going to please everybody.”

Like Thorp, Guskiewicz has big plans for the University, overseeing a reiteration of the Tar Heel Bus Tour and working to bring UNC’s new strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovation for Public Good, to life. 

Like Folt, he’s tried to keep an eye on the future while dealing with the different crises of day-to-day. 

“I like to use the Wayne Gretzky quote about why he was a great hockey player — it wasn’t because he was a great skater, but because he always knew where the puck was gonna be and he got to the spot on the ice. I think we always have to be thinking about where's the puck going to be,” Guskiewicz said. “… It's not always easy, but I'm committed to that as long as I'm leading the University.”