Student Life Archives (2001-2008)

Two chancellors may have to fight to overcome school controversies

(KRT) The controversies the chancellors of UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University have found themselves in over the last year don’t threaten just their persuasiveness with the legislature.

They also raise questions about how quickly and completely the chancellors can bounce back and keep pushing their schools toward ambitious goals they’ve set.

James Moeser wants Chapel Hill to become the country’s leading public university.

Marye Anne Fox hopes North Carolina State University can be considered one of the country’s top research institutions.

Their boss, Molly Broad, president of the 16-campus University of North Carolina system, expresses confidence that both chancellors will overcome their blunders, and says she is working to help each succeed.

But faculty and other university watchers worry the recent troubles will create other problems for the chancellors and North Carolina’s two flagship universities.

Fox’s biggest challenge will be repairing her damaged relationship with professors. Last month, the NCSU Faculty Senate publicly reprimanded her for the way in which she fired two high-level administrators.

The two vice provosts, praised by faculty, had worked at NCSU for decades. Their boss, Provost Stuart Cooper, resigned in protest the morning after Fox asked the two administrators to clean out their offices.

Fox explained the action by saying the provost’s office wasn’t giving her a clear view of how to tackle some of the campus’ most pressing problems: crowded classrooms and faculty recruitment, for example.

Cooper disagreed. “I think the facts will show we had a very effective operation,” he said. “But she’s made her decision. And I have to respect that.”

The provost’s office is critical to faculty. Among other things, the provost sets academic budgets and plays a key role in hiring professors. Cooper was the third provost to resign since Fox was hired in 1998.

In their 29-6 vote to censure Fox, the Faculty Senate said the firings were not fair or reasoned and they damaged the relationship between faculty and the administration. Some faculty and six vice chancellors backed Fox.

Fox also angered lawmakers and some on campus with her plans to build a $71 million hotel, conference center and golf course.

She had wanted to use state-backed bonds and repay them with profits from the center. But in January, after top elected officials criticized her plan, she decided to look for a private developer.

Higher education experts say missteps like those can be damaging.

A censure vote can turn a university’s energy toward the tension, and away from important long-term goals, says Claire Van Ummersen, an officer with American Council on Education.

Others say the censure vote, brought on, in part, by Fox’s management style, could hurt the university’s ability to recruit.

“People clearly have trouble getting along with her for whatever reason,” says Major Goodman, a respected professor who’s conducting research in the genetics and breeding of corn. “It’s her way or the highway.

“And we are going to have trouble hiring administrators, hiring outstanding faculty members because of this problem.”

In general, censure can also have “a very negative impact” on a chancellor’s ability to find work elsewhere, says Bill Funk, who has helped recruit college presidents for the search firm Korn/Ferry International. “Those are the kinds of issues that surface in reference checks,” Funk says.

But others say a chancellor’s fate after a censure vote depends on how much support he or she has from supervisors.

Broad and the NCSU trustees-along with the system’s Board of Governors, which has the ultimate power to hire and fire-say they’re behind her.

“But we continue to watch, very carefully, the unfolding events,” says Brad Wilson, chairman of the Board of Governors.

They point to her achievements.

In 2001-02, NCSU raised $122.1 million in private donations compared with $67.8 million in 1997-98, just before Fox arrived.

In its most current rankings, the Association of Research Libraries placed NC State’s library 32nd out of 113 in 2000-01. That’s up from 37th out of 111 in 1997-98.

And Fox, 55, a chemist who specializes in the interaction of light and matter, serves on the highly selective National Academy of Sciences.

For Moeser, the biggest critics are lawmakers, not faculty. And bouncing back, supporters and detractors agree, should be easier.

Many of them credit one simple act. He apologized for giving the school’s top lawyer a large severance package-to faculty, staff and, in a letter sent to newspapers, North Carolina residents.

“Do I wish we didn’t have any controversies? Of course I do,” says Richard Stevens, Wake County’s new Republican state senator and a former UNC-Chapel Hill trustee who chaired the search committee that recommended Moeser for the job.

“But the thing about James that impresses me is that when he makes a mistake, he’s not afraid to apologize and move on.”

Last summer, hundreds of people from across the country, many of them conservative Christians, criticized Moeser’s handling of a reading assignment about the Quran, Islam’s chief holy book. They said the assignment amounted to a promotion of the Islamic faith.

A Christian organization sued the school on behalf of three students and two others, asking that discussions of the book be halted. But a federal judge allowed them to go on.

Angered by the assignment, North Carolina House members added a provision to their budget bill barring UNC from using public funds for the reading program unless equal time was given to all religions. The provision was dropped before lawmakers approved the final budget.

Then in November, Moeser outraged legislators, faculty and staff when he gave the school’s top lawyer a severance package valued at more than $376,000. He later announced the money would come from private funds.

The timing made it especially bad, faculty say. Lawmakers were already talking cuts. And professors received no raises from the state last year and only $625 per professor the year before.

Moeser still has his critics, many of whom have called him arrogant and unwilling to listen.

“He truly thinks that conservative critics just came back to the cave after swatting a mastodon,” says John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh.

But others say Moeser, an organ player from Texas with endless energy, has acted in ways that could help him in the long run.

His refusal to back down on the Quran assignment endeared him to professors for defending one of their highest ideals-academic freedom.

That goodwill, many say, made it easier for Moeser to weather the severance controversy, especially among academics.

And since his arrival in 2000, he’s done much for UNC, says Broad.

She points to UNC’s $1.8 billion fund-raising campaign-one of the largest by a U.S. public university-which surpassed the halfway mark earlier this year.

And she talks about the federal research money UNC faculty bring in-$488 million last year, up from $345 million in 1999.

“You have to conclude,” she says, “that some extraordinarily good decisions are being made on the campus.”

Moeser, now 63, says he has no intention of leaving. He wants to stay and work toward the goals he’s set.

“If I stay healthy and people want me to stay, I’ll stay until I’m 70,” he says. “I passionately love this university and what it has meant historically and what it can mean in the future.”

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