Listening, learning, leading

From the time she arrived on campus as chancellor last July, Carol Folt could feel it.

A pulsing energy was everywhere, and with every student she met, she felt increasingly plugged into it.

“I call it the buzz – the absolute excitement of being at a place where people care,” Folt said. “There is a passion, a commitment to service, but also such a joyful feeling here, and a warmth.”

And as students began sharing their stories with her, Folt learned the sense of purpose that brought them to Carolina and that motivates them to make the most of their time here. Each story, she said, reveals something fresh and exciting about Carolina’s still-evolving story.

As Folt completes her first academic year as chancellor, she has watched graduating seniors decked in their Carolina Blue gowns gather with friends at the Old Well for pictures and memories. And she is reminded again why she was so excited to become Carolina’s 11th chancellor.

One of those students, outgoing Student Body President Christy Lambden, said he met Folt the day she was announced as chancellor and was immediately struck by her passion for education and students. He is not alone.

“Every student I speak to has said how they really enjoyed their time with the chancellor,” Lambden said. “She is so natural and has a fun personality and really allows that to come out when she is interacting with students.”

At the same time, he said, there is a depth to those interactions that students also value.

“She has a natural charisma and really cares about each student on this campus,” Lambden said.

The students are passionate in their conversations with Folt because they are in front of someone who they deem to be important to the University, he said. “But at the same time, the chancellor has listened to them with the same intensity because she also believes that she is talking with someone who is important to the University. I think that is key,” Lambden said.

Staying connected to students is an essential part of being a good leader, Folt said – and it is fun.

“If you spend your life as a teacher, and for me also as a scientist, there is nothing better than to see the excitement of learning,” she said. “The look in a student’s eyes when they discover something is worth a lifetime of work.

“That is what happens here every day.”

Fresh ideas abound

During her installation on University Day, Oct. 12, Folt drew a connection between the achievements of the past and the challenges of the future. She underscored the importance of renewal as the University holds fast to its bedrock values of pursuing excellence while preserving access and affordability.

“We must make sure we continue to provide what I believe is the best education in America by continuing to prove greatness does not have to be traded off against cost,” Folt said. “No matter what it takes to continue to find a way to be affordable and accessible and outstanding, we are going to do it.”

Carolina began as a “fresh idea for a new nation,” Folt said, and it must continue to keep that same freshness during a time of increasing budgetary challenges and accelerating change.

As she has met with people across campus, Folt said she has seen evidence of fresh ideas everywhere.

It is in the innovations that are spawned by advances in technology, including Kenan-Flagler Business School’s leading online MBA program and this year’s experimentation with MOOCs (massive open online courses).

It is in faculty members’ groundbreaking discoveries that have been created through collaboration, not only within departments, but across departments and schools – and extending to Duke and N.C. State universities.

It is evident in the recent dedication of Marsico Hall, a nine-story, state-of-the-art research building that creates a place of synergy for scientists to push the boundaries of human knowledge.

The freshness of ideas also is evident in the social entrepreneurship sponsored by the Campus Y.

“The Y has some 30 working groups, and every one of them is involved in creating something new that gets a particular job done,” Folt said. “The students are reaching out. They are doing service. And they are developing intellectual property and building companies.”

That same entrepreneurial spirit is spilling beyond campus and blossoming with students’ start-up companies in 1789, a new incubator space that opened on Franklin Street last year.

And it is evident in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, where scientists are working on sanitation systems and water-cleansing methods developed during the three-year University-wide academic theme, “Water In Our World,” that mobilized the campus around this significant global challenge.

Supportive campus climate

Folt also has shown a deep commitment to diversity and the ongoing need to foster a campus climate that is welcoming and supportive for all, said Deborah Stroman, a faculty member in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science and chair of the Carolina Black Caucus.

Stroman said that was evident during their first private meeting.

“The chancellor is a great listener, and to be a leader in a community as diverse as ours, that is an invaluable quality,” Stroman said. “I really felt the warmth and the kindness and her genuine commitment to make a difference and take Carolina to the next level.”

Newly elected Faculty Chair Bruce Cairns, director of the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center and John Stackhouse Distinguished Professor of Surgery, said Folt “hit the ground running.”

Not only did she assemble a dynamic new leadership team, she also reached out to various stakeholders across the state who care about Carolina, including taxpayers, state legislators and Gov. Pat McCrory.

“These are very interesting times for higher education, in particular in North Carolina,” Cairns said, “and we need to be able to define the role of a global public research university and how Carolina fits into that.”

Folt also has recognized that no constituency is more vital to the University’s mission than the faculty, he added.

“Being a distinguished educator and a researcher herself, she recognizes the importance of the faculty and working together with the faculty as we move forward with the really important challenges for the University,” Cairns said.

Turning challenge into opportunity

Lowry Caudill, chair of the University Board of Trustees, said he discovered how easy it was to talk to Folt the first time they met. But he also came to understand that beneath the smile was real substance.

“She truly has all the skillsets that a great CEO needs to have,” Caudill said. “She has the ability to make decisions quickly when speed is necessary. She also has the ability to be very thoughtful when decisions require additional study.”

All of those skills have been put to the test during the past year as the University continues to address lingering questions surrounding academic misconduct that was revealed as an offshoot of the NCAA and University investigation into impermissible benefits some Carolina football players received.

“Carol knew when she came to Carolina that the athletic and academic issue was still in play,” Caudill said. “She came in with her eyes wide open. She also knew that she did not create this – she inherited it. But she also understood that she was charged with wrapping it up and bringing it to closure so the University could move forward.”

Folt said she remembers her conversation with UNC President Tom Ross following the UNC Board of Governors review of Carolina’s response to the academic irregularities: they agreed that if new material came to light, they would take advantage of that and probe deeper.

That opportunity arrived after former African and Afro-American studies department chair Julius Nyang’oro was indicted by an Orange County grand jury last December for receiving $12,000 to teach a lecture course in summer 2011 that he taught instead as an independent study requiring only a paper. (The University had forced Nyang’oro to step down in 2011 and to retire the following year.)

In February, she and Ross announced that Kenneth Wainstein, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Justice Department, had been retained to conduct an independent inquiry of academic irregularities at Carolina based on new information that may become available as part of the ongoing criminal investigation.

“This is our chance to really get to the bottom of this and then use that as a moment for putting our stake in the ground for how we move forward,” Folt said.

In January, Folt had already signaled a strong change in tone when she spoke to the Board of Trustees. It was important, she said, that the University hold itself accountable for inexcusable mistakes that had been made.

Caudill said Folt felt very strongly that that was important in moving forward, and the trustees gave her their full support. “I think every leader looks at a crisis as an opportunity to learn and to grow and be stronger,” he said. “That is what she has done here and I applaud her for that.”

Under Folt’s leadership, the University has launched a new website, http://carolinacommitment.unc.edu/, related to the University’s past reviews into academic irregularities, current reforms, ongoing work and future plans.

Folt admits that no one could have anticipated the extent to which what happened at Carolina would become part of a broader discussion about the inherent tensions between academics and big-time college sports. But Carolina is now part of that national discourse, and Folt wants Carolina to be leading it.

“When you are an important institution, when you carry a real commitment to make a difference in the world, you have to embrace the tough as well as the promising,” Folt said. “How we do this is going to be how we define ourselves in the future.

“I am determined that this will turn into something that really helps Carolina and makes us proud.”

By Gary Moss, University Gazette.

May 9, 2014