EAST LANSING, Mich. (December 8, 2023) – They drove him out.
As Higher Ed Works Chair Paul Fulton told us more than two weeks ago, the NC General Assembly, the UNC Board of Governors and especially the current UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees all but made it certain that Kevin Guskiewicz – a MacArthur “genius award” winner – would leave UNC-Chapel Hill as Chancellor.
And this morning it became official: The Board of Trustees at Michigan State University named Guskiewicz the university’s new President.
“You are gonna look so much better in MSU green than Carolina blue,” Dennis Denno, the Chair of MSU’s search committee, told Guskiewicz during the Zoom board meeting. Guskiewicz wore a green tie for the occasion.
So much for the nation’s first public university and, most of all, for its students.
Though he bears any number of talents, Guskiewicz might be the last independent chancellor – as opposed to a political tool – the University has seen.
And that’s simply a shame. The University has lost more than a chancellor.
“Chancellor Guskiewicz has led UNC-Chapel Hill with grace and goodwill through some very difficult moments, and he’s leaving the University in stronger shape than when he arrived,” said UNC System President Peter Hans. “I join faculty, staff, students, and alumni at Carolina in deep appreciation for his leadership.”
In this era of obsession with STEM education, Guskiewicz is first and foremost a scientist – a neuroscientist who helped the NFL and NCAA redesign helmets to prevent concussions. He’s also a savvy administrator, dealing with a Board of Trustees and UNC Board of Governors for the past four years who weren’t exactly supportive.
He has the respect of the faculty, as exemplified by Faculty Chair Beth Moracco’s letter of support last week.
Yet he also respects the role of the liberal arts, referring often to Carolina’s “low stone walls” as a metaphor for collaboration across disciplines. He told Michigan State’s trustees today that he believes “fervently” in the integration of the arts and humanities into a university’s culture.
Michigan State has had its own problems in recent years, starting with the conviction of sports medicine physician and serial sex offender Dr. Larry Nassar. The university has had five presidents in the past five years. Where UNC-Chapel Hill is ranked as the No. 4 public university by US News & World Report, Michigan State ranks in a tie for 28th.
But Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo – a member of the search committee – had positive words for Guskiewicz.
“My teams are only as good as their leaders,” Izzo said. “He makes relationships that last. He is a real person.”
Following the selection of Kimberly van Noort first as Interim Chancellor, then Chancellor, at UNC Asheville, we wouldn’t be surprised if the same pattern repeats itself at Chapel Hill.
IT REMAINS TO BE SEEN what damage Guskiewicz’s departure does to the University’s reputation or the pool of applicants to succeed him – or applicants for faculty positions.
What we would like to see in a new Chancellor are the courage and independence Guskiewicz displayed as one who chooses his battles wisely.
Rather than a political pawn, we want to see a Chancellor whose allegiance is to the institution, not to his political benefactors.
We’d like to see a Chancellor with the moral fiber of Bill Friday – one who stood up to Raleigh on the Speaker Ban, yet pointed out to students that every dime the state spent on their education came from the hard work of a textile worker who paid state taxes, so they had an obligation to return that investment with contributions to their state.
We could use more of that spirit – not just how much I might make with my degree – in North Carolina these days. Higher education is a public good – college graduates have higher earnings, better health and better civic engagement. What’s not to like about that?
That’s why it deserves public support: Investment in those students’ and our collective future.
Yet too many of our so-called “leaders” seek to denigrate higher education as a convenient punching bag, or distill it to the earnings of an individual graduate.
So let’s hope that whoever follows Kevin Guskiewicz will see to it that students understand that precious balance – as John F. Kennedy did – that is required of a student to graduate not just with a profitable future of their own, but with a profit to our community, to our society, and to humanity.