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Q&A: Chancellor Lee Roberts reflects on his goals as interim chancellor

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Chancellor Lee Roberts gave an interview in his South Building office on Friday.

On Chancellor Lee Roberts' first day as interim chancellor, University Editor Lauren Rhodes sat down with him to discuss his new role and future plans for navigating ongoing issues at the University. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Daily Tar Heel: Well, I have to start off with the question everyone’s asking: What is it like trading in your Blue Devil horns for Carolina Blue? 

Lee Roberts: I had a feeling you'd be asking about that. I am grateful to Duke for first bringing me to North Carolina when I was 17 years old, and I got a fantastic education there. But I'm proof that even Blue Devils can eventually see the light.

DTH: In the past, you worked for former Gov. Pat McCrory and you started your own company, but you don't have any previous professional administrative educational experience. What has happened in your other professional experiences to prepare you for this role?

LR: You're right, I've never worked in a full-time administrative role. I have been around higher education quite a bit. In addition to my time in the classroom [at Duke University], I've served on the UNC Board of Governors, and I was also on the board of our community college system. When I was budget director, I had a lot of exposure to higher education, including the Connect N.C. Bond Referendum, which was the first general obligation bond passed in North Carolina in 15 years. That was a $2 billion bond issue, $1 billion of which went to the UNC System and has funded new construction around the state. Roper Hall is a direct result of that bond initiative. So, I have had a lot of exposure to higher education and that doesn't make me an academic by any stretch, but it's given me tremendous respect for what academics do.

DTH:  There are tensions and have been protests on campus concerning the ongoing war in Gaza. How do you plan to approach the dialogue about issues of hate speech versus issues of free speech on campus? 

LR: Obviously we have a commitment to the First Amendment both as a legal matter but also as a University. We should stand for open debate and free speech and public inquiry. Those are our core values, a university should be about ideas. There are rules, you can't threaten or intimidate your classmates, you can't shut down speakers, you can't materially interrupt University operations. But within those very broad constraints, we need to have and we have had a very robust dialogue on campus about that issue and every other sensitive political or policy issue of the day, and that's as it should be. I do hope that when we have that dialogue, we can do so in a constructive way, in a way in which we can all learn from each other. This is an institution of learning, so let's have those discussions in as scholarly a manner as possible and maybe try and move away from the shouting and the sloganeering.

DTH: Former Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz was passionate about the issues of student mental health and campus accessibility. What plans do you have to continue his efforts? 

LR: He did a fantastic job on those fronts as well as many others. Over the 230-year history of this University, it's difficult to find a more challenging five-year period than the one that was just concluded, and Guskiewicz did an extraordinary job throughout that time period. Mental health and accessibility we know are on the minds of students; we hear quite a bit about it all the time. We want to keep hearing from students about the issues that are on their minds with respect to those areas and others. Tremendous investments been made in resources — the Heels Care Network and CAPS resources have been significantly augmented. We've done a lot for accessibility, but we need to do more. We recognize that we've got an older campus, so we have a lot of work to do on that front. But we're engaging directly with students to hear their concerns and make sure that we're addressing them.

DTH: Guskiewicz left his position after there were tensions regarding UNC governance, specifically with issues like the elimination of distinguished professorships in the humanities department and the creation of the School of Civic Life and Leadership without a faculty vote. Can you provide insight into how you plan to empower faculty in light of such tense relations?

LR: I'm not here to tell the faculty how to do their jobs. I'm here to support the faculty and make sure that they have the resources that they need. We have a governance structure that in one sense is complex, but in another sense is actually pretty straightforward. So, I report to the UNC System president and just the System president. The System president is chosen by the Board of Governors, which is chosen by the General Assembly. It's very clear unlike in a private university, say, where the president or the chancellor would report to a board, and the board would select its own members through a process that maybe not everybody would see as transparent or easily understandable. We have very clear lines of communication here and I think that serves us well.

DTH: You spoke a lot about transparency and especially nonpartisanship in your time leading up to this position, despite working in politics yourself. How do you plan to navigate nonpartisanship amid political tensions at the University?

LR: It's a nonpartisan job, I plan to do it in a nonpartisan way. I'm an unaffiliated voter; I've never been anything other than an unaffiliated voter. As I said earlier, in talking about Gaza, this should be a place of dialogue and debate and discussion. It doesn't matter what my own personal views are, my role is to make sure that we have a really robust debate about the issues of the day on campus. I'd like to make sure it's a respectful dialogue and a dialogue that lives up to our academic traditions, but we need to foster as much dialogue as we can.

DTH: You spoke earlier about coming into the chancellorship after a tumultuous few years, but especially a tumultuous semester. What are you looking forward to most about ushering in this new era at the University?

LR: I just love being on campus. I've been here for about three weeks trying to meet as many people as possible. It's remarkable just to feel the energy — starting Wednesday when the students came back on campus. It's just night and day from the period earlier, when the administrators and some faculty and some folks were here, but the students weren't here. It's like somebody flipped a switch on Wednesday and that's been a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to just being out and around and being on campus. The love that people have for this University is palpable — you can feel it in the air — and everyone I talked to exudes the same kind of enthusiasm for the institution and love for their work here. That's a very difficult thing to create and it's very difficult to replicate. And it's important that we preserve it because I can't think of anything more crucial for the success of an institution.

@l_rhodsie 

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com

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Lauren Rhodes

Lauren Rhodes is the 2024 university editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant editor and senior writer for the university desk. Lauren is a sophomore pursuing a double major in media and journalism and political science with a minor in politics, philosophy and economics.