A Surprising Move, from Dartmouth to UNC

I admit that I was stunned by the appointment of Carol Folt as chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill. It’s hard to believe that someone who has spent her entire career at Dartmouth, a relatively small (4,200 students) Ivy League college, can navigate the shoals of a large, public university (nearly 29,000 students) where sports and academics vie for dominance and where scandals keep breaking against the shore.

Perhaps I will be surprised again—favorably. Certainly, as an Ivy League school that ranks No. 10 on the U.S. News list, Dartmouth emphasizes academics, and focusing on academic quality should be an important priority at UNC.

But the differences in the schools are vast. Folt, the interim president at Dartmouth and previously its provost and dean of faculty, has had no experience with major sports—one of the sources of scandal at UNC—and her years at Dartmouth have earned her some fierce criticism. 

There’s no doubt that she is charming. “She just lights up a room,” said Will Leimenstoll, UNC-CH student body president. “She could charm Hitler,” one source said.

But charm will not be enough to get UNC-Chapel Hill through its challenges.

And we should dismiss here and now any hope that Folt will address issues of political correctness or indoctrination. At a reception after her selection she talked about changes during her professional life; her first example was to note that we are “celebrating” 40 years of Title IX (that’s the law that requires parity in women’s activities, especially sports).

She was also a pioneer in creating Dartmouth’s Women in Science Project, and according to Dartmouth, she oversaw “an unparalleled increase … in the number of women department chairs and holders of endowed professorships.” She also created a “sustainability” minor, which integrates subjects like social justice and ethics with environmental sciences. Thus, her credentials as an Ivory Tower liberal are strong.

In line with Holden Thorp, her predecessor at Chapel Hill, Folt sees the discovery and application of new knowledge as the essence of the university, but unlike Thorp, she has little apparent interest in the accumulation of knowledge from the past. (In one of her celebratory speeches she said that most scientific knowledge she learned in college is out of date.)

More to the point, a couple of sources say that she has hindered the adoption of curriculum proposals made by the Daniel Webster Project at Dartmouth—a group of faculty who are trying to create an optional core curriculum based on the classics and patterned after Yale’s Directed Studies Program. Because the proposed curriculum changes didn’t arise through official channels—that is, existing faculty committees—they were suspect to Folt. Yet the key proponents were not asked to be on the committees. 

In addition, a source says, Folt seems more interested in “critical thinking skills” than in transmitting a body of shared knowledge. Proponents of that curriculum believe that reading the classics is the best way to nurture critical thinking, but, as one says, she is an “educational progressivist.”

The search committee might have detected a red flag in the divisiveness that has characterized Dartmouth for the past decade or so, the period during which Folt has held high administrative posts. This divisiveness stems from a group of alumni who argue that Dartmouth is adrift—putting more money into administration and graduate schools than into undergraduate teaching. To halt this drift, alumni elected several dissenting trustees—until the board decided to change the governance structure that gave alumni-elected trustees a major voice, a structure that had been in place since 1891. 

One of the critics (and a dissenting candidate in 2010) was Joseph Asch, ’79, a Yale Law School graduate and international businessman. He became concerned about the college when he spent his summers in Hanover, New Hampshire (where Dartmouth is located), auditing more than 30 courses and getting to know professors there—and also writing articles for the Dartmouth newspaper.

Asch noticed that students were unable to get into classes because there weren’t enough classes being taught (before 2000 that was unknown, he says) and, academically, Dartmouth seemed “dead in the water.” But spending on facilities was lavish; Asch says that total debt increased from $286 million in 2000 to $1.128 billion now, even though the college conducted a $1.3 billion capital campaign during that period. As a result of those observations, Asch writes an outspoken blog that has been critical of Folt and other administrators.

Jon Appleton, a professor (and world-renowned technical musician) left in 2008, going to Stanford after 38 years at Dartmouth. He says that Folt, as dean of faculty, refused to back him up when he gave some students low grades in a music composition class. He says that Folt supported the decision to give all the students a “pass” without consulting him. 

A Dartmouth spokesman responds to these criticisms by saying that according to Folt, 42 out of 76 students in that class complained about their grades (their grades ranged from A- to D). That level of complaint was highly unusual and justified the decision to go to pass/fail in her view. As for Asch, the Dartmouth spokesman, Justin Anderson, says that since Asch has a “long-standing, very public dislike for almost anything Carol Folt does, I would treat his current criticism with a grain of salt.”

Interestingly, an article in the Dartmouth newspaper after the announcement reflected generally positive remarks about Folt, but no current faculty member was quoted.

It is possible that the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and the UNC Board of Governors (assuming they even learned about the criticisms) saw them as an asset, concluding that Folt can stand up to faculty. One search committee member said that at Dartmouth she was the “go-to person,” ”the fixer,” when something needed to be done. (I am not sure that is a sign of leadership, although it could be.) The Board of Governors recognizes that costs must be contained, and that may involve increasing faculty workloads or otherwise making the university more efficient—actions that may be unpopular with faculty.

The unanimous vote of the UNC Board of Governors was largely meaningless, however. Folt’s selection was a foregone conclusion by the time members learned about it on April 11, the night before the April 12 vote. The only source of information about Folt was President Ross, who discussed the three finalists and explained why he had chosen Folt.

Folt was sitting in on the meeting when she was voted on.

Indeed, there is a lot to question about the selection process. The search committee, appointed by the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, chose three people, whose names it submitted to the trustees, who passed them on to UNC president Tom Ross, who made the final selection. The search committee consisted of 21 people representing a wide variety of interests. Getting consensus meant finding a common denominator for extraordinarily different opinions.

The process was secret, which prevented the broader vetting that might have been possible if the three candidates were known.

And, as one member observed, for Ross to consider a white male when there was an alternative was probably asking the impossible. (There were three candidates, only one from inside the UNC system.)

Despite the questions raised about Folt, the media love her! The News and Observer, which has mercilessly (and justifiably) gone after UNC-Chapel Hill for its scandals, put on the blinders and gushed. An editorial called Folt’s selection “an inspired choice.” Among the reasons: her academic credentials, the fact that she is not part of the “old boys’ club,” and the fact that she “is not leading a sports enterprise.”

No, she’s not leading a sports enterprise. But there is a sports enterprise at Chapel Hill, a big one, and it may well roll over her. In any case, perhaps someday I, too, can gush—right now, I am holding back.