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The Daily Tar Heel

Campus Y leader's sudden dismissal opens potential for more UNC control

Students sit by the Campus Y on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019.

More than a month after Richard Harrill’s abrupt dismissal from the role of Campus Y executive director, questions remain about where the institution is headed.

Harrill was fired in January after 10 years at the Campus Y helm. According to four people affiliated with Campus Y leadership — who were granted anonymity to discuss personnel matters they were not authorized to disclose — his dismissal came without cause and without warning.

Some of those Campus Y affiliates told The Daily Tar Heel that UNC Student Affairs has lacked transparency throughout the leadership transition. They expressed fears that core programs created by Harrill will be dismantled and placed under the University administration's management.

Yalitza Ramos has taken over the institution’s director position on an interim basis.

Harrill declined requests for comment. He is still listed online as a public policy lecturer at UNC — a position he has held for several years, despite not teaching courses in the current semester.

During his tenure at Campus Y, Harrill's accomplishments included establishing the Global Gap Year Fellowship, Bonner Leaders Program and the Creating University Born Entrepreneurs (CUBE) initiative. He also served as Campus Y co-president during his time as an undergraduate at UNC in 1990-91.

The leadership change occurred amid an official agreement, initiated in 2018 and renewed on May 31, 2019, that placed Campus Y's management under Innovate Carolina, a UNC administration initiative for entrepreneurship and innovation.

Multiple Campus Y alumni said communications from Student Affairs were inadequate in the week after Harrill's dismissal. Many of Campus Y’s advisory board members, staff and student leaders learned the news by word-of-mouth, multiple people familiar with the situation said. 

A statement from Student Affairs regarding Harrill's departure from Campus Y was not released until Jan. 24, a week after his termination. The statement, attributed to interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Jonathan Sauls, was addressed to "alumni and friends of Campus Y."

Sauls' statement did not provide any details on the nature of Harrill's departure, but simply announced a leadership transition and thanked Harrill for his past contributions.

"There are no plans to dismantle or reorganize the Campus Y; rather, the Campus Y will continue serving as a hub for student leadership and social activism," Sauls wrote in the statement. "The Campus Y will continue to house the Global Gap Year Program, CUBE, and the Bonner Leaders Program ... "

Several Campus Y staff and current student leaders contacted by the DTH did not respond to requests for comment.

Burcu Bozkurt, a Campus Y advisory board member, said Harrill’s sudden dismissal differed from the planned departure of his predecessor, Virginia Carson, who served as the institution's executive director from 2000 to 2009.

“The communications around Richard have just been poor,” Bozkurt said. “There’s been a lot of burden on current students, current leadership, staff, to kind of pick up the pieces.”

Harrill's role with Campus Y was an "at-will" position. In accordance with the University's employment policy, he received 90 days of severance pay following his dismissal in place of a 90-day working notice before his termination, according to four people familiar with the matter.

“Unless there’s clear and convincing evidence of impropriety, I would think the working notice is a better way to transition," said Daniel Gitterman, a Campus Y advisory board member and public policy department chairperson. "It’s not the mechanism that I as a leader on this campus would have used in this case. It's highly disruptive for the organization and can have detrimental impact on the employee's reputation."

Bozkurt, who is now a Ph.D. student at UNC, said Harrill was a mentor to her during her time as an undergraduate Campus Y leader. She expressed concerns for current and future students at the Campus Y.

“It’s kind of a weird message to send — that a future version of UNC and the Campus Y doesn’t care about or value undergraduate students that looked and felt like me,” she said, “Because a rare mentor that we come to rely on, in the only space that truly felt safe on campus, may simply be gone in the span of a single day.”

Campus Y advisory board member Ted Teague said the lack of transparency in this sudden leadership transition makes him concerned about other changes that may come within the institution.

“The fear is that we’ll have another decision that is announced as a done deal without any input that affects one of these programs,” he said.

Campus Y core programs

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The Global Gap Year Fellowship, established in 2011, subsidizes service-based gap years for financially-eligible high school graduates. The Bonner Leaders Program, also established in 2011, uses federal work-study funds to support eligible students in their volunteer service and social justice activities. CUBE, launched in 2012, provides seed funding and mentorship to student entrepreneurs who strive to create social change.

Leaders from Student Affairs have publicly said these programs will remain at the Y, but their private statements have contained mixed messaging, according to multiple Campus Y alumni.

According to detailed records, one person took during a Campus Y advisory board meeting on Jan. 21, which the DTH confirmed with another meeting attendant, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Bettina Shuford said campus administrators wanted to move the Campus Y in a “different direction” from where Harrill was taking the institution.

Shuford said at the Jan. 21 advisory board meeting that Student Affairs had no plans to break up Campus Y's core programs.

“There’s lots of rumors out there about disentangling units from the Campus Y,” she said at the meeting. “That’s not our goal.”

But Shuford also said Harrill had “high, lofty goals” for the Campus Y, and that Student Affairs wants it to “go back to its core vision and values.”

Shuford told the meeting's attendees that the search for a new leader will be guided by priorities that include “aligning the mission of the Campus Y and the values with that of the University and Student Affairs.”

Bozkurt expressed concerns to the DTH in a later interview about UNC "interfering" in Campus Y's affairs, "given that the same University provided a multi-million dollar settlement to a racist organization.”

Agreement with Innovate Carolina

In October 2018, Student Affairs and Innovate Carolina entered into a memorandum of understanding. That agreement brought the two University administrative offices together in order to "elevate the profile of Campus Y's role in social innovation, and enhance fundraising activities." 

The 2018 memorandum calls Innovate Carolina the “managing partner” of the agreement, giving it responsibilities that include implementing the Campus Y's social innovation goals and managing its staff.

According to the agreement, Harrill reported directly toJudith Cone — UNC's vice chancellor for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development. Innovate Carolina is housed under the office Cone helms.

At the Jan. 21 board meeting, when Campus Y board members asked what the Innovate Carolina agreement will look like without Harrill, Shuford responded that it would look “different” but remain in effect.

“I’m going to get (Cone) involved in this process,” Shuford said.

Four people affiliated with the Campus Y have specifically expressed concerns that Cone would take over CUBE.

When the DTH asked Cone about these concerns, she provided a statement saying “Innovate Carolina continues to collaborate with the Campus Y and its CUBE program, and there are no plans to reorganize the program." 

Teague said he was encouraged by Sauls’ and Cone’s statements, but still thought the University's mixed messaging was cause for concern.

“(Sauls and Cone) are saying all the right things to dispel fears that a move is afoot to restructure the Campus Y or reassign programs," he said. "I hope that their actions match their anodyne words. Time will tell and the community is closely watching.”