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'The best it has ever been': Former deans confident despite increased leadership turnover

UNC sees highest number of deans stepping down since 2003

After serving 10 years as dean of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, Dean Emerita and professor Susan King stepped down from her position in December 2021. 

By the time she returns to UNC to teach in the upcoming spring semester, a total of eight more deans across the University will have stepped down — including five permanent deans. 

This number is the highest in the past 20 years. Only one other year since 2002 has seen more than five deans step down — seven deans, including five permanent deans, stepped down in 2003.

Such sweeping changes in leadership are rare at the University. According to data from the last 20 years, the University sees an average of two to three dean departures every year. 

Deans are evaluated for continuance of their positions at least every five years, but they are appointed by the chancellor for indefinite terms.

Words from the deans

Dean Mike Smith, who is leaving his position at the top of the UNC School of Government in December, said the job of a dean can be stressful. 

Smith was first a leader at the University's Institute of Government, before becoming the first dean of the newly established School of Government in 2001. After leading the program for more than 30 years, he believes it is time for him to turn the page. 

Regarding the high dean turnover rate recently, Smith said he has observed a similar trend in faculty turnover at the school. Smith said he thinks the high turnover rate over the last two years is generational.

“Virtually every single one of those people have spent their entire careers here and have decided it’s time for them to step down and spend more time with their family, retire or do something different,” Smith said.

Smith says his explanation for stepping down is “perfectly simple and boring.” 

“I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and it’s just time for me to step aside, give someone else a chance to come in who will have new ideas and a different way of doing things, to continue the mission and move things forward,” he said.

Other former deans have expressed similar sentiments about their own departures.

“I’m now looking forward to more international travel and to spending more time with my family and loved ones,”  Professor Emerita Terry Rhodes said. 

Rhodes, who served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from early 2019 to June 2022, wrote in an email to The Daily Tar Heel that her retirement in June 2022 had been planned early on, as it fell during her 35th year as a faculty member at UNC.

King, who started her term in January 2012, said she had always intended to stay in the position for only a decade. She said it is important to bring in new energy, ideas and perspectives, especially with the rapidly changing media industry.

“I knew I was doing the right thing," she said. "A decade was a good amount of time to be dean." 

Time as a dean

Barbara Rimer, Dean Emerita and professor at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health who stepped down as dean this June, served in the position for 17 years, a duration second only to Smith’s in recent history. 

“It takes at least a couple years to really learn the people, the school, the environment, the culture and the context of the University,” Rimer said. “This is an incredibly complex place.”

She said there is some inevitable loss to the University when turnovers occur. 

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Rimer said hiring new deans is a costly affair, after accounting for the firm that conducts the national search for candidates and the sign-on bonus given to the new hire. 

“If you have deans that aren’t there for at least five years, it’s very expensive for the University,” Rimer said.

She said she spent a significant amount of her time as dean in the University’s archives learning why previous deans did things the way they did. And when deans have to step down, she said she believes there is “a massive loss of memory.”

Innovative Changes

Still, despite these losses, Rimer maintains that changes in leadership are necessary. Rimer said that her successor, Dean Nancy Messonnier, brings experience and knowledge from working in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the pandemic. 

"She’s close to the age I was when I became dean," Rimer said. "She should have a very bright future ahead of her, and that’s good for the school." 

King said that her stepping down made way for the first dean of color to lead the journalism school: Raul Reis. 

“Now we have somebody — a dean of color — who is experienced, and I think is the right person for this time," King said.

As for the handover from one dean to the next, King said the process is set in University protocol and is relatively smooth. 

Similarly, Smith does not expect to see a huge loss of efficiency as new deans are plugged “into a really strong existing system of professional support.” He believes that the University is in a good place to handle these changes.

“We have a great leadership team that is just the best it has ever been, in terms of incredibly smart, committed, talented people and a professional staff that is just second to none,” Smith said. 

Sharing the same sentiment, Rhodes said she believes that UNC, as “the most ‘public’ of the public universities, is well-positioned to lead in the decades to come.” 

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