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The Daily Tar Heel

Meet Tom Kelley, a candidate for chairperson of the faculty

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Tom Kelley poses for a portrait by the Old Well, on Tuesday, April 4, 2023. Kelley is running to occupy the position of faculty chairperson for the 2023-24 academic year. 

Over two decades at UNC, law professor Tom Kelley has spent much of his time researching how institutions from Raleigh to Rwanda work and fail. Though recently, he has been unnerved by some governance decisions made much closer to home.

“I teach students, and I go out and make presentations on effective governance for nonprofit organizations, including educational organizations," Kelley said. "And what we have witnessed at UNC in recent years is an absolute prime example of ineffective governance, how to actually harm an institution."

Kelley directs the Community Development Law Clinic and the law school’s Institute for Innovation, the latter of which has a space in the heart of Chapel Hill overlooking the corner of Franklin and Henderson Streets. There, he reflected on some of the issues he may have to confront if he wins the election for a three-year term as chairperson of the faculty.

“It would be hard to be a member of this community and avoid the knowledge that we're in a time of — tumult,” he said. 

Kelley said he worries that the Board of Trustees and Board of Governors have been too active in their efforts to reshape the grassroots of the University. While he is open to the idea of the School of Civic Life and Leadership, for example, he thinks it obvious that the process it has gone through has been “a disaster.” Kelley also said the new compelled speech policy is very likely unconstitutionally vague.

While he has his opinions about the current disputes on campus, he said his priority if he becomes chairperson of the faculty would be to amplify the collective voice of staff and students.

“I don't view the role as chair of the faculty as being to step into it and carry out my personal agenda. I just don’t think that's the nature of the position.”  Kelley said. “What I do think the nature of the position is, is spending a lot of time listening.” 

Faculty elections began on March 29 and will last until April 12. Kelley is one of two candidates for the chairperson position.

Landon Whitley is a third-year student at the UNC School of Law and has worked at the Community Development Law Clinic this year under Kelley’s supervision. Whitley praised Kelley as having a unique ability to be graceful and kind while also setting a high standard for his students’ work.

“It makes the work environment incredibly more inclusive, collaborative and, I would argue, more productive. It's been such a blessing and definitely the highlight of my three years of law school to be able to work and be mentored by him,” Whitley said.

Kelley grew up in Louisville, Ky., and worked in corporate law in Boston for several years. He then made his way to the Triangle to work for a Durham nonprofit and has been a professor since 1999. His most far-flung ventures, though, have come with his time in the West African country of Niger.

Serving in the Peace Corps there for two years, he lived there in a grass hut in a remote village. He has since found reasons to return and has made legal systems and development in Africa a centerpiece of his research.

Kelley sees his background as a lawyer as potentially helpful in the role of the chairperson. He fully expects, for example, that admissions will have to be carefully re-tooled after the Supreme Court’s decision comes out regarding affirmative action in Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina.

Eric Muller, professor of law and member of the Faculty Executive Committee, nominated Kelley to be chairperson of the faculty. As they have served on committees, attended faculty meetings and gotten to know each other for more than two decades, Muller noted many virtues in Kelley.

“The first word that comes to mind is wise,” Muller said. "He is reflective, careful, a critical thinker, emotionally intelligent, sensitive and has a very, very good diplomatic sense.”

Kelley sometimes refers to himself as a “sextuple Tar Heel.” In addition to being a professor himself, his wife is a professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, all three of his sons graduated from the University and one attends the School of Law.

Beth Moracco, a professor in Gillings' Department of Health Behavior, is the other candidate for chairperson. Kelley said that he has “absolute faith” that Moracco, a fellow veteran of the Peace Corps, would also do a good job if she wins.


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