Give Roberts a chance

Published December 21, 2023

By Higher Ed Works

Give Lee Roberts a chance.

As sad and needless as the departure of Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz is, UNC-Chapel Hill and the state need Roberts to succeed as the University’s interim chancellor.

As a member of the UNC Board of Governors, Roberts has behaved professionally and demonstrated he is plenty smart – more a technician than an ideologue.

With projections of an approaching plateau in enrollment because birth rates fell during the Great Recession, Roberts worked closely with the System’s CFO to design a new performance-based funding formula – one flexible enough that it lets each campus pick a metric of its own. The model even included a one-time stop-loss provision to protect campuses like UNC Greensboro and UNC Asheville that lost enrollment in recent years.

He remains an unaffiliated voter in this era of hyper-partisanship and a politicized UNC System. 

Though he has taught classes in public budgeting at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, Roberts freely acknowledges he’s not a traditional academic.

UNC System President Peter Hans and others have described Roberts as “a generous listener,” though, and Roberts himself says the role requires “big ears.”1

He needs to be that generous listener, because one of the most crucial aspects of his new job will be to know what he doesn’t know.

WITH THE CHOICES of former Board of Governors member Darrell Allison as Chancellor at Fayetteville State University2 and former Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Kimberly van Noort as Chancellor at UNC Asheville, some see a trend emerging where chancellors seem to come only from the UNC System Office.

The latest revisions to the UNC System’s chancellor search policy concentrate power with the System Office and Hans – largely at the expense of the local campus community.

Each search committee can have no more than 13 members. The President or his designee, Chair of the Board of Governors or his designee, the liaison from the Board of Governors to the campus, and a current or retired chancellor from one of the System’s 15 other campuses must be included.

So the System Office claims at least four of the 13 positions on the search committee, and the President steers the process.

The search committee makes recommendations to the campus Board of Trustees, which in turn must send the President at least three names. The President interviews the candidates and recommends a nominee to the Board of Governors, which ultimately votes on the President’s choice.3

WHETHER ROBERTS APPLIES for the permanent chancellorship or not, one of the nation’s leading research institutions deserves a legitimate national search for a new leader.

That search must be an honest one – it’s critical to the confidence of the University’s faculty and its many constituents.

Even as Interim Chancellor, Roberts might well encounter conflicts with the University’s governing bodies, particularly the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.

If and when that happens, he must show the courage and independence of judgment – the spine – to stand up to political hacks during whatever crisis they hatch next.

Time will tell.