A Conversation with the Chancellor of NC State University

Universities across North Carolina welcomed students back to campus last month for what may be the most “normal” semester since the pandemic began. And according to the chancellor of North Carolina State University, Randy Woodson, students are happy to be back in person, although there is some apprehension. Despite the massive interruptions caused by the pandemic, Woodson states that his overall goals as chancellor have stayed the same: to serve the people of North Carolina. 

Woodson is the 14th chancellor of NC State, the largest university in the state of North Carolina, with a student body of nearly 40,000 students. Before coming to NC State, he served as executive vice president for academic affairs at Purdue University in Indiana. He is also a plant molecular biologist, specializing in reproductive processes in agricultural crops. 

On September 2, the Martin Center spoke with Woodson to discuss his work and goals as chancellor of NC State. The transcription has been edited for clarity and length.

In your view, what is the primary purpose of higher education, and how does NC State pursue that mission?

I believe the primary purpose of higher education is to move the economy of the country forward, and to move the country forward by having an educated workforce and a civilly engaged workforce. And NC State, of course, is a land grant university. We were founded with a specific mission of meeting the practical needs of the country, in fields like agriculture and engineering. In addition to the broader mission of higher education, NC State has always been a university about the needs of the state of North Carolina, particularly as it relates to those practical and applied disciplines like engineering, textiles, and agriculture, but underpinned with a strong liberal arts education.

What are your biggest goals for NC State after COVID-19?

They’re the same goals before and during, which is to serve our mission to the people in North Carolina. Our goals as a university really haven’t changed during the pandemic, they’ve been impacted by the pandemic. And I’ll be happy to talk more about that. We have a new strategic plan. I’m in my 12th year as chancellor, so we’ve concluded the first 10-year plan under my leadership, and we’re now getting ready to launch a second plan, which is really focused on the success of our students—making sure that our students are ready for the workforce and making sure that the university is responding to the needs of the state.

You and I both have been reading about all the new economic development deals in North Carolina and the growing industry here. And a lot of those industries like Google and Apple and Fujifilm Diosynth, and others, are areas where NC State needs to deliver a workforce that’s prepared to go to work in computer science and engineering and biotechnology. Our goals are really to make sure that we continue to produce graduates that are ready to contribute to our economic vitality as a state.

Students are back on campus now, after, for many, being remote for over a year. How has the transition from online to in-person instruction been so far?

Well, there’s a fair amount of apprehension. Everyone’s reading the paper, we all know what’s going on with the Delta variant. And we know that cases are very high in North Carolina and the hospitalization is high. So there’s a lot of concern. But having said that, our students are very excited to be back on campus. And they are adhering to our community standards, making sure that they do everything they can to protect one another. And so far, so good. 

We certainly are having cases, I don’t want to suggest to you that we don’t have challenges. But we’re testing about 2,500 students and faculty and staff every day, that gives us a good sense of where the virus is on campus, [and allows us to] get those people isolated, and quarantined as quickly as possible. And that’s the best way for us to move forward, in addition to the vaccine that science has delivered for this country. A lot of members of our community are choosing to take it. 

Centennial campus is comprised of a lot of non-academic buildings—many occupied by for-profit businesses. What is your vision for all this real estate property? How does it contribute to NC State’s mission? 

Well, let me start by reminding your readers and viewers that Centennial Campus was transferred to the University by two separate governors, Democrat and Republican. It started with Governor Jim Hunt. And actually, a larger piece of property was transferred— that’s now Centennial Campus—from Jim Martin. The namesake [of your] the center was a big part of contributing to the creation of Centennial Campus. The University was assigned this land, we don’t own it. It’s owned by the state of North Carolina, but was transferred to the university with the explicit understanding that it would be built out both as an academic campus and as our research and development enterprise for the private sector through public-private partnerships. 

The best way for me to describe it is: there are almost 5 million square feet of space on Centennial Campus, and only 2 million of it is owned by the university. The rest is privately held and occupied by over 75 companies that have over 4,000 employees that work on our campus every day, and contribute to the economy of the state and hire our graduates, provide internship opportunities for undergraduates, and collaborate with our faculty for research. It really is a “think and do” mentality that Centennial Campus brings to life.

The vision for the future [of Centennial Campus] is its continued development, both as an academic center and as a commercial center for research-intensive organizations that are companies like ABB, the power electronics company that collaborates with our electrical engineering department, or LexisNexis, which has other computer scientists here that collaborate with our computer science and psychology departments and others. So it’s just continued movement forward to make sure that we’re building it out to contribute to the university and the economic vitality of the region.

The university system has made progress in ensuring that free expression and thought are allowed to flourish on campus. NC State, for example,  has a “green light” free speech rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). But there is still room for improvement. Has the university considered endorsing a statement in favor of free speech, such as the Chicago Principles? 

I think academic universities should be a bastion of free speech.

I’m not exactly sure where we stand on the Chicago principles. But I can tell you, we have a very visible presence on our website— and among our students and faculty and staff— on our position on promoting free speech. And [we make] sure that we give every opportunity for groups to be on campus that may have differing views from one another, and that they are able to provide information and have free space that’s uninterrupted. I can’t guarantee it won’t be interrupted, but I can promise you that we’re doing everything we can to make sure people have the right to speak. 

If you look across our recent history, we’ve had every imaginable group here on campus that not everyone agrees with, but they have every right to express their opinions. I think academic universities should be a bastion of free speech. We should be, above all others perhaps, the place where we can enter into civil discourse about the matters that are important to our country and to our world, and do so in a way where people will have full right to express their opinions. And again, can do so without being interrupted consistently and constantly as they speak. And we work hard to make sure that that continues on our campus. And I think that’s why we have a green light [from FIRE].

Some students will come on campus and not be aware of what free speech is or what the university’s stance is regarding free speech. What steps does the university take in ensuring students understand the relevant policies?

That’s a very good point. Well, one of the things that we do for all new students is we have orientation, and we do everything we can to make sure that they’re prepared to be successful at NC State. And we point them to the resources on our website, we point them to our free speech policy, we point them to what it means to have civil discourse, and also what academic freedom means: the ability of our faculty to do their work. 

I’m not a big philosopher, I do have a doctorate in philosophy, but it’s in plant biology. So I’d never consider myself a philosopher, but I can play one occasionally. And Aristotle had a quote that I really love, which is [paraphrasing]: “the mark of an educated mind is a willingness to entertain an idea without accepting it.” And we want our students to be critical thinkers, and to take in information as a student, but also come to their own conclusions about their position relative to issues that they’re discussing and debating in class. So academic freedom and free expression [are] hallmarks of a successful university, in my view.

NC State is a leader in agriculture education, textiles, business, and natural resources. How has your background as a plant molecular biologist helped you lead the university?

It’s interesting, when you look back on a career, and you think about what you thought you were going to do and what you wind up doing, I can promise you I never thought I would be a chancellor or a university president. I went to college to be a farmer because I loved growing plants. I got excited about science and became a scientist, and [then] a professor and loved teaching and doing research. And the next thing I knew I was a college administrator. The honest answer to your question is: I don’t use my knowledge of plant molecular biology every day as a chancellor, but I do use my experience as a faculty member, and my experience as a dean, and the things that I’ve learned in leading universities to be what hopefully is an effective Chancellor. 

If you ask a faculty member what they want in a leader, they, more often than not, will say someone that’s had to be successful doing what they do: teaching, research, and carrying out the service that university faculty are expected to do. And so I think the credibility [of] having been a professor and [of] having been a successful scientist in a university setting, may have enabled me to be a chancellor. But really, most of the skills that I use every day as a chancellor are things that I learned growing up in a wonderful household with great parents that helped me learn how to treat other people.

Shannon Watkins is associate editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal