Citizen Green: The people’s chancellor

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UNCG Chancellor Frank Gilliam at his reception

by Jordan Green

Linda Brady’s tenure as chancellor of UNCG has been marked by expansion, with new student housing marching down the Gate City Boulevard (formerly Lee Street), along with a gleaming, new recreation center, new police station and a tunnel enabling the southward spread of the university.

Whether necessary or not, the new infrastructure — financed in part by a more generous state legislature when it was under Democratic control five years ago — seems calculated to help the university attract more students and compete for tuition dollars, feathering the bed for years of austerity under Republican rule. Which leads to the flipside of Brady’s legacy: the turmoil and low morale that surrounded the firing of three public-affairs employees, though criminal charges related to allegations of doing side work on company time were ultimately dropped. The incident rippled through the ranks of faculty and staff, resonating with anxiety that the administration increasingly views its staff as expendable in light of pressure from Gov. Pat McCrory and other Republican leaders to align academics with the needs of employers.

With that backdrop, there was perhaps more riding on the appointment of the new chancellor than would be the case under normal circumstances. A mixture of anticipation and anxiety suffused the air outside Alumni Hall as faculty awaited the arrival of Frank Gilliam’s motorcade from Chapel Hill on May 22. A 24-member search committee moved with lightning speed to select Gilliam as the university’s 11th chancellor; Brady, who took medical leave in March following heart surgery, has been gone scarcely two months.

“The criteria they were looking for was openness and transparency — the opposite of Linda Brady,” one faculty member told me. “You go down the list, and ask, ‘Does Linda Brady have this?’ No. ‘Does she have this?’ No. Quite the opposite.”

After two chancellors who operated largely behind the scenes, the university community seems desperately in need of a leader who will be visible and out front. Now more than ever, when state legislatures across the country wield the budget scalpel at universities and question the relevance of liberal-arts education, the thirst for a leader capable of rallying morale and standing up for the university’s mission is palpable.

The first look at Gilliam’s résumé after his appointment was announced on May 22 was reassuring: Currently serving as dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, he came up through the ranks as a professor of public policy and political science. For faculty, their new chancellor is one of them. Another faculty member with whom I spoke expressed admiration for Gilliam’s engagement on a range of social issues, including drug policy, juvenile justice, child welfare, healthcare reform, transportation and the environment.

Beyond students, faculty, staff and alumni, the city of Greensboro needs strong leadership at its largest university. This is a city whose identity is almost as closely pegged to higher education as textiles, from Guilford and Greensboro colleges, founded respectively by the Quakers and Methodists, to Bennett College, set up after the Civil War to educate black women, along with the city’s two great land-grant colleges, NC A&T University and Women’s College (now UNCG). Thanks to the colleges and universities, our population is more highly educated than the state as a whole, with 35.6 percent of residents holding either a bachelor’s or graduate degree, compared to 27.3 percent in North Carolina. And in the new knowledge-based economy, universities play an increasingly important role in economic development, as UNCG and NC A&T University’s Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering and the nascent Union Square Campus attest.

Maybe a chancellor is even more important than a mayor as a public figurehead. It should tell you something that Jim Melvin, the most influential Greensboro mayor of the 20th Century, had a spot in the festive throng of well-wishers waiting to meet Frank Gilliam. US Rep. Alma Adams, a retired art professor at Bennett College, underscored the city’s commitment to higher education in her greetings to Gilliam, commending his “scholarship” and dubbing him “the superman chancellor.”

Witty and outgoing, the new chancellor spoke directly to the anxieties surrounding higher education at his reception. Gilliam acknowledged that UNCG needs to prepare students to meet the needs of employers, but he received resounding applause when he added, “We also have to create thinking, intellectual beings. We have to produce young people who are engaged in the discussion about the critical issues of the time, who understand what it means to be a citizen both here in Greensboro and in the world.”

And on one of the most critical issues of the time, the UNCG community likely knows by now that they have a leader in their corner.

“How do we continue to deliver a high-quality educational experience for our students while the business model is changing beneath our feet?” Gilliam asked. “As you all know, across the country states are disinvesting, if you will, in public higher education. And this troubles me, of course, because as most of you in the room know, the prosperity of states like North Carolina, or California, or Wisconsin are directly attributable to the institutions of higher learning in those states and the human capital that it produces.”

  • Laura Tew

    Jordan, please check your facts about the sources of funding for the UNCG expansion funding. Except for the tunnel, which was about $11 million of state DOT funds, all of the rest of the expansion, dorms and rec center, will be paid for with student fees, making UNCG the highest student debt service fee institution in the state. Other schools will follow along as other institutions will adopt high debt service and student affairs fees to pay the mortgages and the operating expenses for these non academic facilities.

  • Terry Austin

    Typo: “As you all know, across the country states are disinvesting, if you will, in pubic higher education.

    • Jordan Green

      Thanks, Terry. Fixed.