This story originally published online at NC Newsline.
Kevin Guskiewicz could soon be the latest UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor to leave the university for a job in another state. Guskiewicz, who’s served as chancellor in Chapel Hill since early 2019, said in a statement released today by the school that he is “weighing” the opportunity to become president of Michigan State University.
“I am focused on serving the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a special place I have lived, worked, and loved for 28 years. I am very proud of what our university accomplishes every day as one of the best public universities in the country. Through the years, a variety of professional opportunities have been presented to me. My family and I must weigh each one, and we are weighing this one.”
Michigan State’s student newspaper, The State News, reported Wednesday that Guskiewicz is the sole remaining candidate for the position.
Unlike UNC-Chapel Hill, Michigan State is a large land grant university with a total undergraduate and graduate enrollment of more than 50,000 students. Like UNC, however, it’s had a large number of controversies in recent years.
If Guskiewicz accepts the position, he’ll be the third consecutive chancellor at Chapel Hill to accept a position of leadership at another university.
In 2013, Holden Thorp — who had resigned as chancellor nine months earlier — accepted a position as provost at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Guskiewicz’s immediate predecessor, Carol Folt, resigned in 2019 and soon thereafter accepted the position of President of the University of Southern California.
“Chancellor Guskiewicz has done a good job of leading Carolina through some of the most challenging times in its recent history,” UNC System President Peter Hans told Newsline in an interview Thursday. “It is no surprise he would be on anyone’s short list elsewhere in the country to strengthen higher education.”
Hans declined to say whether he had spoken to Guskiewicz about the possible move, saying only “Kevin and I have a very strong working relationship and we talk frequently.”
A rocky tenure
Guskiewicz’s tenure as chancellor has been rocky from the start, defined by high profile tensions between campus administration, faculty and students and conservative political appointees on the UNC Board of Trustees and UNC Board of Governors.
Guskiewicz served as interim chancellor for ten months after his predecessor, Carol Folt, resigned in the wake of the toppling of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument on campus. Folt was highly criticized by Republicans in the legislature and their appointees on campus and system governing boards for her handling of the incident. Her resignation came just months after the departure of then-UNC System President Margaret Spellings, who navigated her own tensions with the board of governors during her three years at the head of the system.
Guskiewicz was personally drawn into that controversy when documents revealed a member of his administration was directly involved in the controversial legal settlement that gave the Silent Sam monument to the North Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans — along with $2.5 million. That contradicted public assurances Guskiewicz made that campus level administration were not consulted on the settlement, which was later scrapped by a N.C. Superior Court judge.
Guskiewicz faced tensions between his campus and political appointees in deciding how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. While students, faculty and staff favored sending students home and moving to remote education, members of the UNC System’s board of governors strongly opposed such a move.
Despite warnings from the Orange County Health Director, Guskiewicz supported a plan to bring students back to campus — including full capacity dorms — in the Fall of 2020. The move led to clusters of infections on campus that overwhelmed health professionals and ultimately led the university to move fully online.
In 2021, Guskiewicz found himself at the center of the controversy over the hiring of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. The chancellor was directly involved in conversations with conservative donor Walter Hussman, who lobbied against hiring Hannah-Jones. When members of the university’s board of trustees refused to vote on tenure for the position the story — first reported by Newsline — generated international headlines.
Guskiewicz faced criticism from faculty, students and alumni for not being supportive enough of Hannah-Jones and from conservative members of his campus board of trustees over how the hire was handled in the first place. Though the board ultimately voted to offer Hannah-Jones tenure, she instead took a position at Howard University. In explaining her decision, she said she was disappointed by Guskiewicz’s silence during the controversy.
More recently, Guskiewicz faced criticism from trustees and members of the board of governors in July over UNC-Chapel Hill’s plan to cover tuition and required fees for students whose families make less than $80,000 per year. Members of the board of governors suggested the plan was a political response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on race in college admissions.
UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard University were defendants in that federal lawsuit; the court ruled that both universities’ use of affirmative action in its admission programs were unconstitutional. Guskiewicz continues to defend the university’s position on race in admissions even as it has been criticized by members of both the campus board of trustees and board of governors.
“I think some focus on the controversies,” Hans told Newsline Thursday. “But when I think about Kevin’s 25 years at Carolina thus far, we’re talking about a world class researcher — literally a MacArthur Award winning genius, someone who engages with students at a really deep and meaningful level, [and who] led the largest fundraising campaign of any university in the South, public or private — an enormously successful campaign.”
“Again, it is no surprise he would be on the short list for any open position across the country,” Hans said. “So if they’re not as focused on the controversies, I encourage y’all to focus less on the controversies than Kevin’s many successes.”
Hans acknowledged Guskiewicz and his predecessors have faced tensions over the years.
“Kevin and I have a joke about who has a more difficult job in the system,” Hans said. “Sometimes we trade back and forth. But I have to say, being the chancellor at Chapel Hill is such a complex enterprise. There are so many people who care so passionately about the institution.”
As the UNC system’s flagship university, Hans said, there is sometimes a greater spotlight on that campus and its leadership.
“It’s so high profile within the state and the country, indeed the world in many ways. It can be a really difficult role. I think that’s probably what Chancellor Thorp, Chancellor Folt, Chancellor Guskiewicz have experienced.”
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