A Conversation with the Chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill

On December 13th, 2019, Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz became the 12th chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prior to his appointment, he had been serving as interim chancellor after Carol Folt abruptly resigned in January 2019.

Guskiewicz took leadership during a time of upheaval on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. Before resigning, Folt ordered the removal of the Silent Sam statue’s pedestal in one last attempt to gain the graces of student activists—in apparent violation of state law. Over the following months, tensions on campus slowly began to dissipate, with a brief surge in protests when the UNC system made questionable arrangements to rid itself of the monument once and for all. That attempt was overruled by a judge, taking the Chapel Hill campus back to square one. Nevertheless, in a February faculty council meeting, Guskiewicz promised that he would do everything in his power to make sure the monument never returns to campus.

Now with the outbreak of the coronavirus, Guskiewicz has had to respond quickly to unprecedented challenges. Nearly all classes have gone online and about 90 percent of on-campus students have been required to vacate—spurring a downpour of questions and concerns about internet access, grading, and refunds.

Before the state and national declarations of emergency, the Martin Center sat down with Guskiewicz to discuss his work and goals as chancellor of the state’s flagship university.

In your view, what is the primary purpose of higher education and how does UNC-Chapel Hill pursue that mission?

Our goal is to prepare the next generation of leaders here in North Carolina and across the nation. We stay focused—both from a curriculum standpoint as well as an experiential [standpoint]. I think that part of becoming leaders is to go out and not only help solve the great challenges of our time, but to identify the grand challenges of tomorrow. I think that’s what we do really well here at UNC-Chapel Hill: Preparing our students to view the world through different lenses and to identify what those challenges are and to become members of society to help improve humankind.

What are some of the campus-wide initiatives that you believe are serving to fulfill higher education’s central mission?

There are three different types of experiential education opportunities: study abroad, internship opportunities, and directed research with a faculty member or a graduate student. Our goal is that all of our undergraduates will get at least two of those three experiences while they’re here in Chapel Hill. I think that better prepares them, it takes them outside of the classroom to learn.

We [also] have a new Program for Public Discourse that I think is going to be a really uniquely Carolina program that is really focused on our students gaining an appreciation of viewpoint diversity, intellectual diversity, [and] bringing speakers in who sit at certain places along the ideological spectrum.

And I think the third initiative—I don’t think I can call it an initiative but it’s a culture that we have here, a culture of collaboration. When I became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, we rewrote the mission statement of the college. I wanted to simplify it so that everyone could remember it and be able to put it on the back of a t-shirt. This mission statement is: “think, communicate, collaborate, and create for meaningful lives.” The collaboration piece is so important. As you walk our campus, there’s the low stone walls that define our physical space, but I like to say that it defines who we are as a campus community, where we don’t work in silos.

Revisions to UNC’s general education requirements have been underway for the past few years. The new curriculum, Ideas in Action, is set to be implemented for incoming freshmen in the fall of 2021. The curriculum aims at instilling students with 10 “focus capacities” which include 1) Quantitative Reasoning, 2) Engagement with the Human Past, 3) Ethical and Civic Values, 4) Power, Difference, and Inequality, and 5) Natural Scientific Investigation. How does this new curriculum improve from the university’s current general ed curriculum?

Most universities’ general education curriculum [have] you take three science courses, three social science courses, [and] a few humanities courses, two language courses.

[The new curriculum] will allow students to connect these different disciplines and the information taught within them in a more meaningful way rather than saying “Well, I took my three courses in social sciences, now I’ve got to go find three in the natural sciences.”

If someone’s really into environmental issues, they can find courses around the environment that have tag lines across a few of those different focus capacities; and I think they end up graduating with what I like to refer to as a more “vertical learning approach” where what they learned in their first year is connected to what they learned in their second which is connected to what they learned in their third year—rather than just an approach of checking boxes.

I want to add that I think our current general education curriculum is very good. The students who are here now who are going through that curriculum I think do very well. But I think that this [new curriculum] is a more contemporary approach to taking those courses outside of their chosen discipline.

As mentioned, the new curriculum emphasizes equipping students with skills or “capacities” such as critical thinking skills, ability to communicate with those from different backgrounds and cultures, etc. But a lot of subject matter can develop abstract critical thinking skills. How much does content knowledge—the specific knowledge students learn—matter in a liberal arts education?  

I think it’s very important and I know that every faculty member submits a syllabus with the stated objectives and content of the course, and they cite what focus capacities it will meet. The content is as important as the delivery of the material—how it’s delivered and how the students are demonstrating that they understand the content and that they achieved the objectives set out in the course. There are several courses that involve the development of writing skills; many [classes] will have an oral communication component to them, in terms of demonstrating that they’ve acquired the knowledge.

Three UNC-Chapel Hill professors—Jennifer Larson, Mark McNeilly, and Timothy Ryan—recently conducted a student survey on the state of free expression and constructive dialogue on campus. The results of their research were mixed with some positive findings, but also with some that point to real problems. It is positive that, according to their findings, students generally perceive course instructors to be open-minded and encouraging of participation from both liberals and conservatives. What did you think of this finding? 

Yes, I was at the faculty council meeting when the findings were summarized and recommendations put forward. Yes, I think I agree: there were mixed results. On the positive side, it suggested that students were not being indoctrinated by the faculty. It seemed where they [students] felt there was some pressure was from their peers in regard to those who sat on the other side of the ideological spectrum. I think we need to find ways to encourage more freedom of expression in the classroom environment and there were some good recommendations provided by the three professors. I hope that faculty will take those recommendations and think about that as they are developing their courses in the future.

We have a very good FIRE rating for freedom of expression and we have to remind people that we want to retain that.

The professors also found that 25 percent of students endorse blocking a speaker they disagree with. This isn’t a tiny minority of students who are in favor of shutting down speakers. There were two incidents in the pit last year where students shut down the speech of other students. One student stole a sign of a pro-life group and another student physically assaulted pro-life demonstrators. What should the university’s response be to those kinds of incidents? 

I think we have to continue to promote freedom of expression and emphasize that we have to appreciate those different viewpoints. We have a very good FIRE rating for freedom of expression and we have to remind people that we want to retain that. I think the new Program for Public Discourse will help in that regard [by] bringing speakers to campus. We have faculty who do teach in this way: Christian Lundberg teaches a course called “Think, Speak, Argue,” [in which] he puts issues out and they have debates in the class. Then, the students have to switch the next class and argue the opposite viewpoint. I think that is just one example of a course and the type of teaching that will benefit our students to appreciate these different viewpoints.

When I spoke about free speech to a large class of UNC-Chapel Hill students last fall, a large number of students stated that they believed that it was their free speech right to interrupt or stop someone else from speaking or expressing their viewpoint. I left that class realizing how little students know about the First Amendment. What can UNC-Chapel Hill do to educate students about free speech and to better promote a diversity of viewpoints on campus?

Again, I think we have to continue emphasizing the importance of freedom of speech and expression. That can happen in the classroom, that can happen within student government—we have a very passionate student government association. And the faculty council is passionate about this.

There’s a message that goes out at the beginning of the academic year to all the students emphasizing the importance of free speech on our campus; that we allow speakers of all types to come to campus and that to be disruptive would be a violation of that policy. We can always improve in this regard and I’m committed to it.

I also attended a recent meeting of the Commission on History, Race, and a Way Forward. What are the commission’s goals and what do hope to see as an outcome of this commission?

In 2015 to 2017, we had a history task force that began the work of researching the university’s history and our understanding of our past. That work slowed down and eventually came to a halt and I decided that it was time to bring that back so that we can better understand our history and learn from it. This fifteen-member commission has been charged with conducting archival work—so there’s a history component to [the commission’s work]. There’s [also] a teaching component, we’ll work some of [their work] into our curriculum. And the [commission’s third task] is to engage with underserved, underrepresented communities around North Carolina.

I do think that it’s important to understand our past. We’re 226 years old, there’s a complex history there. There’s a lot of good during those 226 years, but there’s pain and suffering as well. We need to understand it, appreciate it, and learn from it so that we can have a community where everybody feels like they belong. That’s a big part of our new strategic plan called Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good. We just launched it in late January; it was endorsed by our Board of Trustees, and the first of the eight strategic initiatives is called “build our community together”—a part of the History, Race, and a Way Forward Commission’s work will be built from this.

You’re an authority on concussions in college sports. It would be remiss of me not to ask: What do you think is the future of college football?

I’ve been part of helping the NCAA initiative—they have a baseline testing protocol that allows us to better identify concussions when they occur. The biggest problem for many years was that they were not detecting [concussions] and then athletes would be out there participating. We didn’t have the right tools in our toolbox. A lot of the work over the last 25 years has [been] designing better concussion diagnostic tools, putting in place better management practices.

I think we’re in a much better place today than we have ever been and I often say that it’s probably never been safer to play sports than it is today. Having said that, concussions are still occurring and football is one of several sports in which we see a fairly high incidence rate. We have to continue to change the rules, we have to continue to modify athletes’ and coaches’ behavior such that we can mitigate the risk of injury, and be smart as we’re thinking about return to play, return to learn. When you’re thinking about this injury in the collegiate setting, in the high school setting, it’s not just about going back to play, but it’s about making certain they’re equipped to go back to the classroom, back to learn.

I’m optimistic that we will continue to improve safety in football and in all sports, but we have to be diligent in our approach to having the right practices in place.

Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers about your work at Carolina?

I’ve had the opportunity to view this incredible place through different lenses: That of a junior faculty member who was just trying to get tenure 25 years ago. I had the opportunity to view it through the lens of a department chair, a center director, and then a dean; I have two children here, so I’ve viewed it through the lens of a parent, and now as chancellor.

There’s a lot to be proud of, being not only the nation’s first public university, but I’d also argue that we’re the most “public of the publics” if you look at the commitment that we have to serve the citizens of North Carolina. I remind people every day that the state invests a lot of resources in us and we have to be sure that there is a return on that investment.

We went out in October on the Tar Heel bus tour across 28 towns that our students call home with about 100 faculty and senior leaders. [There were] three different buses, we traveled 1,600 miles for three days. [It] not only showcased the important work that our faculty are conducting with regard to research and service and teaching across the state, but they were allowed to bring ideas [at]  home back to Chapel Hill, to think about how they might adapt their research program a bit to even better serve the state of North Carolina; or to adjust their teaching to better serve the students in the classroom.

[The bus tour] was really important and I’m proud of everything we do, whether it’s teaching, research, or service. We need to amplify that more and I think the new strategic plan will do that. When we got back from that bus tour, we had a reflection dinner.

We had our group of panelists who talked about their experiences on each of the routes: We had one that went out west, one that went east, and one that went southeast. After that, Anita Brown-Graham, who moderated it, passed the microphone around the room and every person on the tour was asked to provide one word about what they sensed, what they felt on that three-day bus tour. It was incredible: we heard everything from “service” to “teaching” to “motivation” to “pain.”

Mine was “responsibility.” [The trip] further underscored for me the responsibility that we have as a leading global public research university; to make certain that every day we’re focused on [giving] back to the citizens of North Carolina, preparing that next generation of leaders.

Shannon Watkins is senior writer at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.