The Coalition for Carolina posed several questions to UNC System President Peter Hans and appreciate his written responses.
Coalition for Carolina: What makes Carolina great? Why are we among the top five public universities in the country?
President Peter Hans: By any measure, UNC Chapel Hill is an extraordinary institution. It’s the nation’s oldest public university and one of the world’s great centers of research and innovation. It has been a beacon of opportunity to generations of North Carolinians. It changed my life, certainly, and I know it does the same for thousands of students each year.
You could write a book on what makes Carolina a great university — people have! — but to me it comes down to this: UNC Chapel Hill has grown into a world-class university while staying true to its core mission of welcoming and serving the people of North Carolina. There aren’t many public flagships in the country that have remained so deeply rooted in service to their home states while also performing at the very highest levels, and Carolina’s ability to balance those goals is what really sets it apart.
Coalition for Carolina: In what ways is UNC Chapel Hill’s role unique among System schools? How does the System Office and the Board of Governors more generally understand the role of the flagship?
President Peter Hans: Every institution in the UNC System has a unique history and a unique role to play. Carolina is a magnet for some of the most talented students in our state and across the country. It’s a research powerhouse, helping to make North Carolina a leader in areas crucial to our long-term growth. And through UNC Health Care and all of its affiliates, Carolina plays a huge part in meeting the health needs of our state. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I think all of us understand the importance of having an institution like Carolina at the heart of our state and our university system.
At the same time, I think everyone in Chapel Hill recognizes the value of being part of a broader system of higher education, and having partners across the state in fulfilling the core responsibilities of teaching, research, and public service. Support for public higher education remains so strong in North Carolina because the people of this state see its continuing relevance to their lives and aspirations, whether that’s Nobel-winning research in Chapel Hill, excellent public health programs in Greenville, or a fantastically good nursing school at NCA&T. We’re all stronger when we work together toward shared goals for our state.
Coalition for Carolina: Chancellor Guskiewicz enjoys strong support from many Carolina constituencies. What do you think the strengths of his leadership approach are? What would you like to see him do differently? Do you support his continued leadership?
President Peter Hans: He enjoys my strong support, as well. Through some of the greatest disruption in the history of this University, Chancellor Guskiewicz has kept Carolina focused on its core mission. The ability to stay focused and deliver on those key priorities is a major reason that UNC Chapel Hill is emerging from the covid pandemic in such strong shape to invest and grow.
Like every big and high-profile institution in the country, I think Carolina is struggling to manage some tension between people who see the place as a stage for conflict and people who just want to do good and worthwhile work. There are times when I think the University could do more to elevate thoughtful voices rather than conflict entrepreneurs, but that’s a challenge for everyone in public service right now. In this regard, the UNC Program for Public Discourse is an example of the Chancellor’s leadership in a positive direction.
Coalition for Carolina: What would you like to see Carolina doing differently and why?
President Peter Hans: My job is to support our state’s public universities. I have conversations all the time with our chancellors about how we can work together to improve performance, address problems, or change our approach as the needs of North Carolina change. I don’t think those working relationships are well-served by the person in my role offering public critiques.
I’d also point to the System’s strategic plan, and each institution’s annual report on their progress, as an excellent and very transparent look at how we’re asking each campus to grow and focus. At UNC Chapel Hill, that has meant putting more resources into low-income completion, rural enrollment, and graduates in high-demand fields like health sciences and education. (You can read the details here.) What I find so valuable about the System’s approach is that it sets shared goals, then allows each campus to decide how they can best contribute. Everyone gets to play to their strengths while improving core performance, and the whole System gets better.
Coalition for Carolina: I think we can all agree that certain metrics like enrollment, student quality, and research are all very strong at Carolina today. But do you agree that faculty and staff morale, their latitude and compensation are also key metrics and vitally important to the success of every university?
President Peter Hans: A strong and intellectually vibrant faculty is the foundation of any great university. By any measure, Carolina’s faculty is among the most productive and accomplished in the world. We’ve been vocal at the UNC System about the need to raise compensation so that we can retain talented faculty and staff, and our lawmakers came through a 5% raise in the last budget. I know the leadership in Chapel Hill is very focused on raising private dollars to remain competitive, and the shared work between the System and the campus on a more comprehensive and transparent budget model should make it easier to allocate resources toward those critical priorities.
But before we move on, I just want to note that those metrics you mentioned — growing enrollment, highly competitive students, and being on track to earn more than a billion dollars in sponsored research this year — are incredibly hard to pull off, even for a highly regarded institution like Carolina. I don’t take that for granted, and I don’t think anyone in our state does, either. You can’t achieve that kind of excellence without an extraordinary faculty.
Coalition for Carolina: The peer set for every school is different. Historically, faculty salaries have taken that into account and UNC has been very competitive. We’ve seen from the Chronicle of Higher Education data that UNC-CH faculty salaries have fallen behind alarmingly. This may also be true for other schools in the System. What actions can you and the BOG/BOT take to address this?
President Peter Hans: We advocated strongly to raise compensation for both faculty and staff in the latest state budget, and we succeeded. We know there’s more to be done, especially for graduate students and adjunct instructors, and particularly as inflation affects the cost of living. We’ll continue to push for competitive compensation.
We’ve also worked with each of our institutions to create a more comprehensive and transparent budget model that allows campus leaders to make strategic investments with greater confidence. I think one of the most important things Chancellor Guskiewicz and his team have done over the last two years is confidently tackling the university’s long-running budget deficit, making some hard choices so that Carolina is in a position to invest in key areas, such as compensation. That underlying budget challenge had been building for a long time, and it took courage and discipline to fix it.
Coalition for Carolina: Many people have pointed out the lack of diversity on the Board of Governors. How important do you think it is that we have a diversified Board of Governors that represents all North Carolinians. Is your own team reflective of the state’s diversity?
President Peter Hans: North Carolina is a big and diverse state — ninth largest in the country and growing fast. I think we all take seriously the obligation to represent and serve that very dynamic population, and we all recognize there are ways we can do it better. Diversity in race and gender is important, as is diversity in terms of economic background, expertise, and ideas. We have a broad and diverse twenty-five person leadership team at the System Office, and I’m committed to working with colleagues that can earn the trust and confidence of the people we serve. If you’d like further detail on the team please contact my chief of staff, Norma Houston, who is incidentally a fifteen-year member of Chapel Hill’s faculty.
Coalition for Carolina: Talk about the policy that enables you to add your own candidates to searches for Chancellors, and specifically the part that requires at least one be sent to you as a finalist. What was the purpose of this policy change? If your final pick was not a choice of the campuses’ search committees, what do you think the repercussions would be?
President Peter Hans: To be effective, chancellors must have the trust of their campus communities so their involvement in the search process is essential. Chancellors also need the confidence of state policymakers and the broader public. Higher education depends on a lot of different constituencies to succeed.Hiring and helping chancellors is one of the most important things the UNC System President does, and no one is more invested in their success than I am. I spend an enormous amount of my time talking with our chancellors, supporting them to work through difficult problems or figuring out how we can provide better assistance in key areas.
Given that those campus leaders report to the System President, it makes sense that the person in my role has strong input into the selection process. This change provides a transparent option (not a requirement) in the search process. Again, no single person has a higher stake in a successful search than the System President when you consider the reporting relationship and when you take into account my responsibility to each institution.
Coalition for Carolina: In the past, the Chancellor has recommended candidates for the UNC Board of Trustees. This year none of those recommendations were taken. Were you aware or involved in that decision-making? Do you think that was a good course of action?
President Peter Hans: Under our governance structure, the System President is not involved in trustee selection. I think the trustees at Carolina and all of our institutions understand that their role is to advise campus leadership, offer insight and informed judgment to the Board of Governors with their delegated responsibilities, and help tell the story of their institutions to the wider world.
I also think it’s worth remembering that these are not easy roles. They involve a lot of public scrutiny, as they should, and working with a lot of different constituencies that often have competing ideas about the direction of the University. I commend anyone — past and present — who’s willing to step up and render that volunteer service to our public universities.
Coalition for Carolina: Do you think it’s good practice for Trustees to serve on the search committee of Deans and to get involved with the search and approval process of Tier I and Tier II hires, promotion, and compensation?
President Peter Hans: I think the right balance in shared governance between oversight and autonomy can take some time to get right, and it relies as much on norms of trust and reciprocity as it does on formal rules. Having trustees who are well-informed and fully invested in the leadership of the campus is valuable, and chancellors have a lot of say in how they choose to involve their boards and keep them updated. Each institution takes a different approach, and I don’t micromanage that.
Coalition for Carolina: How do you think the Nikole Hannah-Jones situation could have been handled differently?
President Peter Hans: Any time you have a failed hire — and especially a very high-profile failed hire — there are things that could have gone differently. In this case, I think the University could have been much more clear about the tenure process, the criteria, and where the authority to grant tenure resides. A lot more direct communication and dialogue would have been better than seeing various parties trying to fight out their viewpoints in the media.
Coalition for Carolina: What is your perception of the Coalition for Carolina?
President Peter Hans: The passionate involvement of alumni and supporters is a good thing in the life of any university, and I welcome it. The conflicts at Carolina get plenty of airtime already, so I hope the Coalition can help people understand what a magnificent and prodigiously productive place UNC Chapel Hill continues to be. I’m proud to be a Carolina alum, and I will always work with anyone who wants to make it better.