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UNC astronomy professor named next provost amid concerns about political interference


The back entrance to South Building is pictured through the Old Well on Oct. 17, 2021. 

UPDATE 12/14/2021: The story text has been updated to include new information on a Dec. 14 emergency meeting of the UNC Board of Trustees and a Dec. 10 statement from Faculty Chairperson Mimi Chapman.

Chris Clemens, the UNC College of Arts & Sciences’ Jaroslav Folda Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy, will be the next provost and executive vice chancellor effective Feb. 1, the University announced Thursday.

Clemens joined UNC’s faculty in 1998 and has served in a variety of roles, including chairperson of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, senior associate dean for natural sciences and senior associate dean for research and innovation in the College.

The executive vice chancellor and provost is the University’s chief academic officer, a role second only to the chancellor. The University’s current provost, Bob Blouin, announced in May that he would be stepping down from the role by the end of 2021.

The announcement of Clemens as the University’s next provost comes as community members have expressed concerns about transparency in UNC’s decision-making and interference from the UNC System, UNC Board of Trustees and Board of Governors.

In an op-ed published in The Daily Tar Heel on Nov. 29, Faculty Chairperson Mimi Chapman wrote that Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz was under “significant pressure to make a particular choice” in the provost search.

“Based on the information that is being relayed to me by multiple sources, our trustees and the UNC System are dictating his choices to the point that he really has none to make,” Chapman wrote.

In a subsequent interview with the DTH, Chapman declined to say whether or not she’d spoken with Guskiewicz about the concerns, but emphasized the importance of ensuring that the next provost was the chancellor’s “true choice.”

“It’s just an incredibly important job,” Chapman said. “It’s almost really important that the chancellor works really well with that person so that this is someone they can really trust, that they can talk about difficult situations with.”

It is unclear whether or not Guskiewicz faced pressure to choose Clemens or anyone else specifically. Chapman said she and others involved in the search process signed confidentiality agreements.

The nationwide provost search began June 9, and the search committee, co-chaired by Vice Chancellor for Research Terry Magnuson and College of Arts & Sciences Dean Terry Rhodes, finalized a leadership profile that was sent to the Chancellor.

The Chancellor then makes a recommendation to the BOT, who have final approval as the provost qualifies as a Tier I hire. The BOT met Thursday and voted on personnel items in open session, however those particular items were not disclosed.

Clemens previously served as the interim faculty director for the Program for Public Discourse in 2019, which was accused of having a conservative political leaning and lack of transparency about its funding. At one point, BOG and BOT members were on the Program for Public Discourse’s advisory board, which was also a cause of concern for community members, including some faculty on the UNC chapter of The American Association of University Professors.

The provost search was one of many underway at the University, as it has seen many vacancies in senior leadership since Blouin’s announcement in May. 

As Clemens transitions into the role, Amy Locklear Hertel, who currently serves as the chancellor’s chief of staff, will move to a redefined executive vice provost role, according to the announcement. In addition, Christi Hurt, UNC’s senior prevention strategy officer, will become the chancellor’s chief of staff.

“We are in a position to achieve some truly remarkable things at Carolina in the years ahead,” Guskiewicz said in Thursday’s announcement. “I’m proud to be a member of this community and share my appreciation for all that you do on behalf of our great University.”

In a statement to WUNC, Chapman said she stood by her comments in the op-ed published in the DTH.

"I hold Professor Clemens in great esteem and believe he will serve the University well," she said. "It is nonetheless true that he has been the pick of the BOT since the search for a new provost began last summer."

Following days of media outlets, legal experts and others questioning whether or not the BOT vote on Dec. 9 may have violated North Carolina Open Meetings Law, the Board held an emergency meeting on Dec. 14 called by Chairperson David Boliek to redo the vote.

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In the emergency meeting, Boliek said the BOT had been "unfairly accused" of violating the state's Open Meetings Law when it voted to approve Clemens.

Boliek called the emergency meeting, he said, "to immediately end any further attempts to question or challenge the validity of this appointment."

In the Dec. 14 vote, all BOT members present voted yes to approve Clemens as the University's next provost and executive vice chancellor, with the exception of Student Body President Lamar Richards, who voted no.


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