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Q&A: Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz reflects on triumphs and trials of 2023

20231204_Soukthavone_university-chancellor-end-of-the-year-interview
Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz reflects on the year in an interview in his South Building office on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023.

UNC students will finish their last day of class on Wednesday. As 2023 winds down, Editor-in-Chief Emmy Martin sat down with Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz to talk about victories UNC has experienced and unprecedented challenges it has navigated over the past twelve months. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Daily Tar Heel: We’re coming to the end of a semester and a year that has seen a lot of highs and lows. Could you offer some overall reflection on 2023, this past year at UNC?

Kevin Guskiewicz: It's been a year that brought challenges but also so many opportunities — and certainly some highlights. Just a week into the start of the semester, the tragedy of the shooting of Dr. Yan created a lot of concern on campus. You prepare for days like that but hope you never have to activate a plan. But we've learned from it and we'll continue to make adjustments to ensure that the safety of our community is intact. The war in Israel and Gaza, which began on Oct. 7, has certainly affected us here locally. We've been working to spend a lot of time with our community members.

But there are a lot of highlights. The women's field hockey team winning the national championship here in Chapel Hill just about two weeks ago with our first-year coach, Erin Matson, was a real highlight. The U.S. News & World Report rankings had Carolina moving up from No. 5 among all public universities to No. 4, maintaining our status as No. 1 in the best value ranking. We moved up from No. 29 to No. 22 in the overall ranking. So, that was a highlight. 

DTH: One of the biggest topics on the UNC community’s mind this year has been campus safety, especially after the shooting in August and gun-related incident in September. There have been some initiatives from UNC, including installing license plate readers on campus and improving Alert Carolina messaging. Are there any other upcoming plans to address concerns from the community about campus safety?

KG: One of the things that we started over a year ago was putting better lighting around campus in high-traffic areas. The lighting is much better today than it was even just a year ago. We've installed over 1,000 cameras on campus, including outside of every residential hall over the summer. We have 15 ongoing projects where we have about 385 to 400 additional cameras being installed before the end of January. 

We've taken feedback from those incidents earlier in the semester through a feedback portal and just announced some of the aggregated results from that. I was pleased to see that students took the opportunity to provide feedback to us. Our maintenance team is working hard to be sure that we have the best systems in place to be able to lock the facilities down. One of the things that we put in place in January was putting QR codes on the podiums or the front desk of classrooms with the protocols for that specific classroom on how to lock it down. But again, there's no perfect response. I just met with my student advisory committee today and we talked about potentially requiring active shooter training on our campus and how we would implement that. I'm supportive of doing that and putting that requirement in place. 

DTH: College campuses have seen rising tensions over the war in the Middle East since October 7, with reports of racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia across the country. What are you doing to support UNC students amid this tension? Are there any specific student groups you’re supporting or working with?

KG: I have spent a lot of time with student groups over the past few months around this issue, as have members of my leadership team. There are a lot of differing opinions on this and I think it's important that we are listening to all of those groups, respecting people's First Amendment rights but also reminding the community of the importance of respectful dialogue. If there's one thing that I've learned about this, it is that there's a lot of misinformation around this conflict. There is a lot that is out there on social media that's often painful to read and to hear. 

We have the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies and the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies that have been holding roundtables. I think we need to do that and we have to be thoughtful about the approach we're taking, trying to educate people so we can be part of the solution rather than the problem.

DTH: The campus has seen several demonstrations this calendar year about a myriad of topics. Most recently, students have held protests related to the war in Israel and Gaza, even occupying South Building. Student organizations have demanded that UNC divest from products and programs connected to Israel. As chancellor, what are your thoughts on these demands, and has the administration been working to address them in any way? 

KG: We receive feedback and requests from a lot of different groups and organizations. We've been asked about divestment on several other occasions over the past several years, and we listen. The way our endowment is managed is complicated to even break down. At my level, we have experts who think about the way we invest in and grow that endowment globally. We will continue to listen to the feedback and we'll try to reassure folks that we are committed to the health and safety of all members of our community and being respectful of those differing opinions.

DTH: To address the elephant in the room, I’d like to ask about your consideration of the Michigan State University presidency. Can you provide any clarity on your decision? 

KG: When you're in these roles that I'm in, you're going to have calls from other institutions and search firms and knocks on the door occasionally. There have been times when I've said, "No thank you, we're very contented and happy," and other times when I've said, "Maybe we should take a look at these." These are family decisions. I started my academic career here and will love Carolina regardless of where I end up, which could be here — it could be any number of places. No decisions have been made. 

DTH: You have said you would only accept the role of Michigan State University president if there is no undue interference by trustees or faculty and have said you’ve dealt with trustee in-fighting and undue oversight at UNC. Can you talk more about your concerns regarding this interference at UNC? Has this been a part of your consideration?

KG: We have a 15-member board of trustees now, and I'm still getting to know some of them because some of them are new and some of them have been on the board for several years. I truly believe all of our trustees love Carolina. I think some trustees think there may be a different way of moving the University forward and others who think that things are going great. And so there's always going to be some sort of what I like to describe as a "healthy tension" that exists. 

DTH: Are there any updates that you can talk about regarding accessibility on campus? We've written about how the maintenance backlog is now worth more than one billion dollars. Are there any changes coming to address these concerns? 

KG: We're heavily relying on the General Assembly to help support us in the repair renovations, and some years are better than others in terms of what they're able to provide for us. This year happened to be a good year, we've received a lot of funding for our request for new elevators in several buildings because we were hearing about accessibility challenges there with elevators breaking down. There are several projects underway. I want to emphasize that this is a top priority for me and for our leadership team, and our trustees have supported us in making these additional requests for for funding and using some of our reserve funds for these accessibility needs.

DTH: What plans does the University have to further address diversity, equity and inclusion moving forward following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action?

KG: On June 29 of this past year, the Supreme Court ruled against us in the Students for Fair Admissions case in which we had been using race as one of many factors in our admissions process. We were disappointed by that outcome, but as I've said over and over, "We're built for this." We will do everything possible to ensure that we can build a class each year that brings diversity of all types into that incoming class. Our curriculum, and I've taught here for 28 years, is an incredible curriculum, but I think it comes to life when discussions are had in the classroom with students with different lived backgrounds. 

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DTH: Can you provide an update on the School of Civic Life and Leadership since the announcement of the inaugural faculty?

KG: We've seen the value of modeling civil discourse for our students so we can teach them how to participate in an active thriving democracy and teaching students how to think, not necessarily what to think. I think the Program for Public Discourse has been very successful and this is an opportunity to build curriculum around that program. I'm very excited about the the inaugural faculty who have agreed to participate in this endeavor. Sarah Treul Roberts, who's going to serve in that leadership role, will do an incredible job. I'd rather us get it right than rush to be first to do it. 

DTH: You have navigated the University through several hardships, from the pandemic to the denial of tenure of Nikole Hannah-Jones to a shooting on campus, during your tenure as chancellor. As you near the five-year mark, I wanted to offer you the opportunity to reflect on your time in the role.

KG: I look out that window every day from my desk with the Old Well and I see people taking pictures all the time. On occasion, I've gone out to actually take a picture. I saw grandparents out there trying to take a selfie with a double-wide stroller with their two grandchildren. I said, "That picture is not gonna work, let me go take the picture for you." So I went out and I met them and they asked me who I was and I said, "Oh, I'm the university's photographer" — joking. I told them who I was and that I hoped when their grandchildren become Tar Heels they are as proud of the University as they are today; they were both alums of UNC from the early 80s.

That's been my goal, in my 28 years here, I've seen this magical place go through challenges that we've seen, but always respond to those challenges and get better. These aren't easy jobs, but nobody should jump into this role thinking that it's going to be easy. I tell people that easy is boring and we certainly haven't gotten bored — and I wouldn't want to. 

20231204_Soukthavone_university-chancellor-end-of-the-year-interview
Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz reflects on the year in an interview with Emmy Martin, The Daily Tar Heel's editor-in-chief, in his South Building office on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023.

@emmymrtin

editor@dailytarheel.com


Emmy Martin

Emmy Martin is the 2023-24 editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as the DTH's city & state editor and summer managing editor. Emmy is a junior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and information science.