The Chancellor’s Last Stand

By many accounts, James Oblinger was an exemplary chancellor. Even as he was forced to resign in the wake of the Mary Easley scandal, he was praised and defended by the very men who forced his resignation.

Still, his legacy as the head of N.C. State will be one of bringing shame to the university, for lying and covering-up his earlier actions.

So, why did he fall so hard and so fast? Why did this man considered to be such outstanding university administrator turn out to be such a bad leader? And more important, what lessons have been learned, and what do they suggest for the future?

A large part of the answer lies in the nature of a chancellor’s job, as it is defined today. The general university environment is another important contributing factor.

But most of all, it was a crisis of character.

A chancellor (and his or her administration) plays the central role in a university’s three-part shared governance system. On one side are the trustees (and in the UNC system, the president and general administration as well). And on the other side are the faculty, who have staked out ownership of the most crucial component of a university—the curriculum.

Most chancellors today receive two mandates from the trustees: raise money, and enhance (or at least maintain) the reputation of the school. The faculty generally ask two things: they want their jobs protected and they want the administration to stay out of their way (which often means yielding to the dictates of the school’s most vocal and radicalized faculty members).

Both trustees and faculty are capable of bringing down a chancellor (or college president). One well-known case is the now-director of President Obama’s National Economic Council, Larry Summers, who was chased from the presidency of Harvard by the faculty of the School of Arts and Sciences for remarks that offended their political sensibilities. More recently, the College of William and Mary Board of Visitors (the school’s trustees) sent president Gene Nichol packing for embroiling the school in public controversies that negatively influenced the perceptions of alumni and other potential donors.

Therefore, to thrive on the job, a chancellor must be able to walk a narrow tightrope between these two widely different constituencies (along with the press and politicians as well).

This calls for an affable, non-confrontational individual who can make friends quickly, get lots of people to like him, and coax important (and self-important) people to do his or her bidding without causing offense. The job of chancellor is a diplomat’s job, somebody who can bring emotionally charged opposing parties to the same table for discussions, smooth ruffled feathers, and work behind the scenes while maintaining a sunny public disposition.

He or she must also be willing to yield to the opinions of others. It helps to be in general agreement with the vision of the trustees and the worldview of the faculty. The trustees usually want to aggrandize the university—more money, big new buildings, more ground-breaking research, winning sports teams, more prestige. University faculties are almost always left-leaning politically, and there is usually some highly vocal radical element that takes the lead. Even if a chancellor disagrees with this element, it is often to his or her benefit to just look the other way to maintain the campus peace.

This job description of chancellor fit Oblinger to a “T,” and he excelled at it. He was a star fundraiser, finishing a seven-year campaign initially intended to raise $600 million with $1.37 billion. New buildings arose on the new Centennial campus, and N.C. State had all of the outward trappings of excellence that translate into national prestige. It was recently named the twelfth best educational value in public universities by Kiplinger’s, and its athletic teams remain competitive in the heralded Atlantic Coast Conference. The school’s new general education requirements replaced traditional standards with less demanding ones and added an emphasis on diversity. Total enrollment rose from 29,957 in the fall of 2004 (before he was named chancellor) to 32,872 in 2008. Teaching and staff jobs increased, pleasing the faculty.

Oblinger was also a lifelong academic. In a recent article, Jane Shaw quoted from a speech by former provost Larry Nielsen, (also implicated in the Easley scandal) about the academic life. Shaw wrote:

    Nielsen reminded the faculty that they belong to “one of the most respected and trusted professions in the world.” Faculty members work “in a truly benign administrative setting” and have “an incredible level of job security.” He illustrated this last point by noting that he and his wife did not have a six-month savings fund in case he lost his job (as recommended by a financial planner). Losing his job was virtually impossible, he said. And despite his forced resignation as provost, he still has a very good job as a professor.

This soft environment is not the kind in which people regularly have to suffer the consequences of difficult decisions, or face character-building challenges. It is not the sort of place where steely resolves are forged and strong individuals who will stand against the tide of opinion are molded.

It is not a place where firm standards of right and wrong are hammered into the soul; it is instead a wellspring of moral relativity. People in academia quickly become comfortable with their perks and privilege. It is a place where people are quick to avert their gaze from what they don’t want to see, for fear of being turned out of paradise.

This is the environment where the character of Jim Oblinger was formed. It is not surprising, then, that he was so quick to comply with Governor Easley’s request to hire his wife. It should be no great shock that he not only publicly and privately denied any involvement with May Easley’s employment, but then rewarded his provost, Larry Nielsen, with a sweetheart retirement package for taking the fall.

After all, the qualities that made him a successful chancellor are not the qualities of a great moral leader. The buck did not stop with him—he chose to hide behind underlings until emails revealed that he was indeed very much involved in the hiring of Mary Easley.

Anybody can understand why he helped give the governor’s wife a job initially. She had decent credentials, and it is hard to stand against the wishes of the most powerful man in the state, particularly one who has great influence over your budget. But when he lied to cover up his involvement, he crossed the line that divides integrity from corruption. His background left him unprepared to do the right thing.

So where does State go from here? Some might feel the thing to do is to move on as if nothing happened. But something ugly did happen. Given the chancellor’s failure to act with integrity, given the culture of privilege that has been flourishing for many years, and given the economic downturn, perhaps it’s time to alter the job description of chancellor.

Perhaps it’s time to appoint chancellors who will lead and provide upstanding moral examples, not academic insiders who can raise funds and appease the various campus interests. Perhaps it’s time to seek candidates who are from outside the system, who have spent their working years dealing with consequences, not running from them. Time to recruit administrators who have the fortitude to peer into all the dark, dank corners where the sweetheart deals and sinecures grow wild, and who will stand their ground when the light of transparency causes the fur to fly. Time to find people who will not knee-jerk reflexively in the direction of political correctness every time a controversial issue gets raised.

Such an individual will not be popular—reformers are rarely loved by the entrenched interests they seek to reform. But there is a new reality on the N.C. State campus. The school has not only suffered a crisis of integrity, but there is a new economic reality as well. Instead of a fund-raiser, the school needs a nuts-and-bolts, dollars-and-cents individual who is not accustomed to, or impressed by, academic privilege and moral relativity, somebody who will cut costs and gore a few sacred (and wasteful) cows.

NC. State is a great institution; it will get past this scandal, but the incident should not be considered “business-as-usual.” Something like this was bound to happen sooner or later, because of the way the system is set up and because of the people who tend to prosper in that system. Now it’s time for the powers-that-be to forget the old model of a chancellor and to look outside the system for leadership abilities and integrity in the people they choose to lead and guide our youth.