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Q&A: Chancellor Guskiewicz reflects as spring semester comes to a close

Kevin Guskiewicz, chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, celebrates with students after a Carolina victory in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament against Duke in New Orleans on Saturday, April 2, 2022. UNC won 81-77.

On Wednesday, spring classes come to an end for UNC students and seniors will graduate from the University in 11 days.

As the semester wrapped up, Editor-in-Chief Praveena Somasundaram spoke with Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz about the triumphs and challenges of the academic year, concerns focusing on mental health and transparency, and what UNC has in store for next year.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Daily Tar Heel: We’re nearing the end of another year that has seen many ups and downs. Could you offer some reflection on the past year at UNC?

Kevin Guskiewicz: We’ve met the challenges that we faced this year, and I'm really proud of the resilience that I see from everyone on our campus and the commitment that everyone's put forward to help us respond in a positive way to the pandemic. And this class of 2022 has been through a lot, and so I'm very excited about that sea of Carolina blue caps and gowns that we will see out there on Kenan Stadium here just three weeks from now. I think I mentioned this to you earlier in the semester, when you asked me what I was most looking forward to — it was that, to get to May 8 for this class.

I'm also proud of our faculty and staff and the ways in which they found ways to innovate and continue to conduct their research and service across the state of North Carolina and beyond. We’ve had another record year in research funding and there's a lot of impact that comes from that. We’ve persevered through some challenging times with so much uncertainty.

DTH: One of the biggest challenges this year that’s been a topic of campus conversation has been mental health. There have been some initiatives from UNC, but are there any upcoming plans to address other concerns from the community about mental health support and making the University a more welcoming place?

KG: We're continuing to work hard at creating a culture of care and compassion at Carolina. We're continuing the pilot program launched in October of this past year to provide additional telehealth therapy options for students in a partnership with Uwill. It’s allowed (Counseling and Psychological Services) to eliminate the waitlist that we were beginning to experience for brief therapy and also connect students with a therapist as quickly as they possibly can. We're going to continue to have the seminar series, that was one of the outcomes from the Mental Health Summit that we had on Nov. 15.

DTH: One of the structural changes we’ve seen recently has been wellness days being incorporated into the academic calendar. Will those stay? Are there going to be other structural changes like that integrated into the next year?

KG: I think they were a big success this year. With next year’s academic calendar, we built in additional ones, and from everything we’re hearing, the students have used them wisely. The faculty have expressed interest in keeping them in the academic calendar, so I think future academic calendars will keep those wellness days.

I don’t know of other structural changes other than the seminar series that is going to continue to take place as a result of the Mental Health Summit. I know Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Amy Johnson and Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, who is the chair of psychiatry in the School of Medicine, they’re continuing to work together with the JED Foundation on what initiatives could be put in place for the fall.

DTH: This semester has seen a lot of changes regarding COVID-19, in terms of course modes and masking guidelines. Can you talk about what the University is still tracking when it comes to coronavirus and what next semester will look like?

KG: We're continuing to work closely with our infectious disease public health experts. Campus Health continues to track the number of positive cases through the health clinics, and we talk regularly with Orange County Health Department to see if there are trends in the local community that need to be considered. Right now we're going to stay the course through the rest of this semester with only about five days remaining. But we will see how things go over the summer, but I don't anticipate major change.

DTH: Do you have any updates on building renaming or a timeline for when the buildings that have yet to be renamed might be completed?

KG: We have an ad hoc committee right now that is considering a list of 10 names that were submitted to me for consideration for removal. That ad hoc committee, that's the next step in the process based on the Board of Trustees’ policy. That group is in the process of reviewing the dossier for those individuals, and they will complete their work probably in the next two months and make a recommendation to me at which point I'll take that recommendation under consideration and potentially make a recommendation to the trustees for removal of additional building names.

I'm really proud of the fact that we did rename two campus buildings, Hortense McClinton Hall and Henry Owl Building. This was announced back in the fall and so I'm really pleased with that. And so, if there are additional names removed from buildings, we will obviously have another process by which we would put new names on buildings that represent the values that define our University.

DTH: Over the past year, there have been concerns about research and transparency at the University with recent events like Terry Magnuson’s resignation and the inquiry into emails and hard-drive backups of journalism school faculty. What are your thoughts on these concerns and what the University can do to help faculty and staff feel more comfortable and confident on campus?

KG: Our strategic plan, the first strategic initiative in there to build our community together and to be able to do that we have to be sure that we build the trust that's necessary to build that community together. We will continue to be open and transparent and value shared governance. I’ve said repeatedly that we have to have a partnership that values shared governance. I think if COVID’s taught us anything, it's that we have to bring all voices to the table as we’re making decisions.

DTH: In terms of diversity, equity and inclusion and bringing voices to the table, what are the University and administration planning to do moving forward to reckon with this past of slavery and racism at UNC?

KG: The History, Race and a Way Forward commission was one of the first commissions that I formed back three years ago in my first few months as chancellor. I'm really proud of the work that that commission has conducted. And while some might suggest that the actions following their recommendations have been slow to take form, I remain committed to it. We've put two new names on buildings recently and I anticipate that there will be more to come and that's really important.

We're also working with that group to look at the Unsung Founders Memorial and how we can make improvements there. I know the provost and myself and other members of the leadership team are committed to continuing to move this forward.

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DTH: Are there any updates that you can talk about with the Unsung Founders Memorial specifically? We've written about how it has been sinking into the ground. Are there any changes coming to solidify its place on campus?

KG: We've been looking at some different options for possibly relocating it. Another option is to build the ground up around it. The soil hasn’t worked well, let's put it that way. So we’re looking at different options.

DTH: What are your goals for UNC as chancellor next year?

KG: I'm excited about, obviously, celebrating this class of 2022, but it won't be long before we’ll be getting ready for the start of the fall semester. I'm really excited about our innovation hub downtown. It's going to allow students to have access to our incubators and our entrepreneurs to come to town and want to be part of this vibrant campus community.

We have received a million dollar award, it's going to be called the Kessler Scholars Program, and this is an American Talent Initiative. We will be one of 10 American Talent Initiative members. It's going to fund 20 students per year. It's sort of part of our commitment to affordability and accessibility for students who are on their way to Carolina. So this is our new Kessler Scholars initiative. We'll be ramping that up in the fall.

And then I think the last thing is our new IDEAS in Action general education curriculum. This incoming class will be the first to enroll into Carolina with that new requirement. I think it's going to teach them to enter their Carolina experience being more curious than ever. Those are three things that I touched on that will be new and exciting coming this fall.