Featured photo: Members of the chancellor search advisory committee meet in Greensboro on Monday. (photo by Joe Killian)

This story was originally published by NC Newsline, story by Joe Killian

UNC System President Peter Hans made the mission clear Monday at the first meeting of the search advisory committee charged with finding the next chancellor of N.C. A&T.

“We’re not here to fill Chancellor Harold Martin’s shoes,” Hans told the 13-member committee in its meeting at the O. Henry Hotel in Greensboro. “That’s just not possible after such a storied tenure and brilliant career leading this institution. But it is possible to find the right leader for A&T’s next chapter — and that’s our goal.”

Martin, the longest-serving chancellor in the 17 campus UNC-System, announced in September he would step down at the end of this academic year after 15 years at the university’s helm.

During his tenure, A&T has grown from a beloved but struggling regional university to the nation’s largest historically Black college or university (HBCU), with explosive growth in student performance, the campus footprint in Greensboro, funding and prestige.

Recent visits to the campus by Vice President Kamala Harris and First Lady Jill Biden have underscored the university’s rising profile, as did a recent study that estimated its statewide economic impact at $2.4 billion.

“There’s only one Harold Martin,” Hans told the committee Monday. “We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have his wisdom and leadership the last 14 years — and before that.”

NC A&T State University Chancellor Harold L. Martin, Sr. (courtesy photo)

Martin earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering at A&T, where he learned alongside future NASA astronaut Ronald McNair. After earning a Ph.D at Virginia Tech, he returned to A&T where he taught in the College of Engineering. He ultimately became department chair, then dean of the college and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs.

He became chancellor at Winston-Salem State University in 2000 and went on to become senior vice president of Academic Affairs for the UNC System in 2006. There, he worked under then-UNC System President Erskine Bowles and built strong relationships with figures across the system. That includes Hans, who served as a member of the UNC System’s Board of Governors and as president of the North Carolina Community College System before becoming system president in 2020.

During Monday’s meeting several members of the committee — which includes representatives of the faculty, staff, alumni and area business community — said they first met Martin when he was a faculty member and administrative leader at A&T.

“He was my dean in the engineering department,” said Kimberly Gatling, chair of the N.C. A&T Board of Trustees and member of the search advisory committee. “I’ve always looked up to him and he’s been an amazing mentor.”

Gatling said she agrees replacing Martin isn’t possible, but she opined that the search for a great leader to build upon his work will be, with the distance the university has come under Martin’s leadership, sure to attract a strong field of candidates.

New chancellor, new process

The search for A&T’s next leader will be different from previous chancellor searches, thanks to a change to UNC System policy adopted in May.

Under the previous and somewhat controversial process, the UNC System president was granted more direct power in the selection. That’s something for which Hans pushed even before he officially assumed the presidency in 2020.

Traditionally, a search committee made up of an individual school’s board of trustees conducted an independent chancellor search; in turn, it forwarded at least two finalists to the UNC system president. The president then chose a final candidate to submit for final approval by the UNC System Board of Governors.

Hans proposed a change that would have allowed the president to unilaterally add up to two hand-chosen candidates to any chancellor search process. Those candidates would go through the same interviews as other candidates, but would automatically move forward in a slate of finalists for the position, irrespective of the opinions of search committees or boards of trustees.

In effect, the president would have had the power to appoint finalists and to choose the final candidate from those finalists.

The proposed change was unpopular among campus boards of trustees, particularly at HBCUs that worried the selection of their campus leaders would be further politicized by a board of largely white, largely conservative political appointees. It also divided the UNC Board of Governors, to which Hans reports. A number of members said they worried it would essentially allow the system to disregard local search committees and boards of trustees. After a long debate, the board changed the proposal so that only one of the president’s hand-picked candidates would become an automatic finalist, not two.

Even with that amendment, critics said it concentrated too much power in the hands of the UNC System president. Proponents said it made the UNC System more like a private business, in which CEOs choose the leadership teams they believe will be most successful. Though search processes are confidential, the UNC System said that during the time period Hans held that power, he did not use it.

Under the new and current policy, Hans still wields a great deal of power in the process — and, along with members of the board of governors, is more involved from start to finish.

Hans, in consultation with the chair of the campus board of trustees, chooses the members of the search advisory committee, which must now include members of the UNC System Board of Governors. Board of governors members were previously prohibited from serving on search committees. Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey is serving on the A&T search advisory committee, along with Pearl Burris-Floyd, the board’s secretary and liaison to A&T.

The advisory committee will, in partnership with a search firm yet to be chosen, interview candidates and consider community input before sending an unranked list of at least three candidates to the campus board of trustees. The search firm should be identified at the end of this month, said search committee chair Hilda Pinnix-Ragland Monday, when the advisory committee will spend a week interviewing potential firms.

The board of trustees will consider the candidates forwarded by the advisory committee and submit three finalists to the system president, who will choose one nominee to present to the system’s board of governors, who will hold a final vote on the hire.

“That’s one of the strengths of this particular policy,” Hans said Monday. “We’re all engaged in the search together at the same time — trustees, representatives of constituents, members of the board of governors and myself. As opposed to the old process, which was essentially a campus process and then a system process. And we might not be on the same page there. This way we’re all in it together.”

A search for the next chancellor of UNC-Asheville has been moving forward under the new policy and the search for Winston-Salem State University’s next leader is expected to begin under the same process in the new year.

A history of search controversies

The phenomenon of campus level boards of trustees finding themselves on a different page than the board of governors or the system president has been a problem for years, leading to misconduct by member of the board of governors, scuttled searches, and final decisions opposed by campus level leaders and their communities.

In 2021 Darrel Allison, then a member of the system’s board of governors, abruptly stepped down from the board to become a candidate in a chancellor search at Fayetteville State University that was nearing its end. Allison was chosen as chancellor, despite members of the campus board of trustees saying he was not originally among the finalists the board chose to submit to the system president.

Allison did not have a doctorate and has no experience in teaching or administration in higher education. His credentials were largely as a lobbyist for K-12 charter schools and as an ally of, and political operative for, conservative causes and candidates. Despite that, trustees told Newsline at the time, they faced political pressure to make sure he was included in the final slate of candidates.

“It would be fair to say that he was no one’s first choice in the selection process,” said one FSU trustee, who asked not to be named so that they could discuss details of the confidential search process. “But it was obvious that he would be the first choice of [UNC System President] Peter Hans and the board and he has support from the General Assembly.”

“The reality is that this is a political process,” the trustee said. “I’m not saying it hasn’t always been a political process, to some degree. But it is now a more political process than it has ever been. To try to deny that is trying to deny reality. So you have to go with the candidates you think will be approved. That was the argument for adding him.”

On Monday, members of the A&T chancellor search advisory committee were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements and warned against any communication that could compromise the confidentiality of the search process.

“Having gone through this myself, I’m very cognizant of how important confidentiality is,” said Randy Woodson, chancellor of N.C. State University and member of the advisory committee. “Not everyone agrees with this, but I believe you will get the strongest pool of candidates if you assure confidentiality.”

In recent chancellor searches, breaches of confidentiality have not been a problem at the search committee or trustee level, but they have occurred on the board of governors itself.

The most recent high-profile example: the chancellor search at Western Carolina University in 2018. In that case, then-UNC System President Margaret Spellings was infuriated when her choice pulled out of contention. The candidate made the decision after Tom Fetzer, then a member of the board of governors, leaked the candidate’s information to a private firm in an attempt to prove they had lied in the application process. It was later revealed Fetzer had himself sought to be interim chancellor at Western Carolina and Spellings had gone with someone else.

After that controversy, the board changed its policies to make resignation from the board necessary for those seeking a chancellorship in the system — a move members said they had never considered necessary until members of the system’s own board began angling for the top spots at universities.

Pinnix-Ragland, the search advisory committee’s chair, said she expects confidentiality to be maintained throughout the process, even when candidates come to campus so that students, faculty and staff can engage with them directly. She also encouraged community members to take an online public input survey to assure everyone voice is heard.

“We’ve already had more than 350 responses from stakeholders,” she said. “I’m confident we will have thousands.”

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: [email protected]. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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