A Conversation with the Chancellor of UNC-Wilmington

In September, the chancellor of UNC-Wilmington, Jose Sartarelli, announced his plan to retire next year.

Sartarelli took office on July 1, 2015. Before coming to UNC-Wilmington he served for five years as the Dean of the College of Business and Economics at West Virginia University. Sartarelli also spent three decades in international marketing and management. 

The Martin Center recently spoke with Sartarelli to discuss his work and goals as chancellor of UNC-Wilmington, as well as his advice for his future successor. The transcription has been edited for clarity and length.

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

The way I see it, the primary goal of higher education is to prepare and enable young men and women to become citizens. And as we do that, we do a service to the country. And that’s what we’re all about. We are in the business of preparing young men and women to succeed in life and to participate in a democratic society. And that’s what we’re supposed to do.

UNC-Wilmington has gone through a lot in recent years with hurricane Florence and then the pandemic. How did these challenges impact your plans for UNCW? 

I think they shaped some of those plans. From the very beginning, we set a vision for the university to be recognized as a university that was focused on excellence, for its global mindset, and for its community engagement. Those three things were pursued vigorously throughout my six and a half— soon to be seven—  years in Wilmington. As we hit Hurricane Florence in 2018, and then Dorian in 2019, and then the social justice movement in 2020, and then the pandemic in 2020, we have had to adjust, we have had to modify some of the things that we were doing. But we have not lost focus, we stayed very focused on achieving what we wanted to do, which is to remain excellent and to remain globally focused, and remain committed to community.

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?

We, as you may have realized, tried to do that twice. The first time we tried to do that was last fall. When we brought the students back to live on campus, we had some issues in terms of infection, so we had to de-densify. We [originally] had students living together. And we basically focused on having one student per room. So, we had to send 700 students back home in the fall of 2020. Once we de-densified, that worked relatively well. And we were able to keep the students on campus, [which] some other universities were not able to do. 

Then, [in] the spring of 2021, we decided to go fully or to remain online, and in the summer too. Then we were really preparing to go fully normal in the fall of this year. We started very eagerly back in late July, early August, but then we had to make some changes and we disrupted and stopped a lot of the programming that we had for events for activities on campus, etc. But we kept emphasizing the need for us to keep the students living on campus. But we’ve been doing a significant amount of testing. Every week, we’re testing between three and 4,000 people.

And the idea was to test, identify a positive case, take them out and put them in quarantine or in isolation. We reserve a dorm to do exactly that with 150 rooms available for quarantine and isolation. In August, we had one day we hit 122 positive cases. And this past week, we had several days with zero positive cases. And we’re averaging out one or two or three, maybe four a day, if at all. So it’s worked wonderfully. We’ve been able to keep all the students on campus— 4,200 or so. And I think, in both last year, when we had to de-densify and this year, where we had to, quote-unquote, do “extensive testing and isolation.” I think it’s worked.

The university system has made progress in ensuring that free expression is protected on campus. UNCW, for example,  has a “green light” free speech rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. But there is still room for improvement. Has the university considered endorsing a statement in favor of free speech, such as the Chicago Principles? 

Let me go back to the beginning somewhat. When I arrived in July of 2015, we were not green, we were I think red, turning yellow, but not there yet. And so I made a point at the very beginning to work with our folks and with FIRE to make sure that we got it right. And we’ve been green ever since. There’s nothing more significant and more important to me than the First Amendment. First Amendment [is] about freedom of the press, freedom of speech, assembly, religion, and all those things are very critical, but particularly freedom of speech and expression are very important. We’ve been protecting that very much. I’ve been accused also by different people that the university is not doing it, [that] it’s protecting certain allegiances, but that’s not the case. We make an extra effort to make sure that both students and faculty and staff have all the freedom they can to express themselves. 

Let civility prevail, let the ideas be discussed.

In fact, I believe that the university is the marketplace of ideas. We should have civility on one hand, and we should allow free expression extensively on the other hand. In this age of cancel culture— cancel culture is such a negation of free speech. That is so sad. Back in the 60s, we were fighting very much for freedom of expression and free speech. And I myself in Brazil, since I was born and raised in Brazil, I stayed under a military dictatorship for 10 years with no free speech. And I can tell you, I did not like it— it was crazy. So free speech is very dear to my heart. It’s very important to the university. We’ll do everything we can to ensure that faculty, staff and students have the ability to exercise free speech.

I think you may have alluded to this, but in recent headlines there was news that a former trustee, Woody White, left the board citing a lack of viewpoint diversity. Is there anything that you can tell us about that?

Different people have missed or misunderstood some of the things we’ve done. When President Trump ran for office, he wanted to come and speak. Well, we allowed him to come and speak, and as we should— any other candidate [can], too. And so he came and spoke and we had to obviously keep the parties apart and segregated so they would not get into fights.

And so, we’ve been protecting free speech all along. We’ve been protecting the free speech of both of the left persuasion as well as the right persuasion, both sides. I believe this country, based on democracy and capitalism, is a great society. And we want to continue supporting it. So I think there was some misunderstanding. Any accusation, coming from the right or the left, that we do not protect free speech is absurd. I am a great proponent of point-counterpoint. This is the marketplace of ideas. 

This is where different points of view should be discussed. We have a “respect compact.” This respect compact that we signed, talks about exactly that: how do you ensure free speech, the freedom of expression, and you do it civilly? Because if you don’t do it with civility, then you’re going to [resort to] violence and physical confrontation. We do not want physical confrontation, we want free speech, the ability for you to speak your mind, and to be protected as you do it, day in and day out by faculty, by staff, and by students. 

Tell me a bit more about the respect compact.

The first version was made several years ago, but we renewed it in 2017. I think it’s a different, updated version. The faculty senate signed [it], the student organizations signed [it], this staff senate signed, all of us signed [it] because the future of our democracy relies on the ability to do it, with civility. If we don’t do it with civility, we’re done. We’re done as a country, and as a society. So civility is going to be very important, respecting each other’s dignity and points of view. And if we don’t do that, we’ve got a problem.

You recently announced your plan to retire next summer. Looking back on your time at UNCW, what do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment as chancellor? Is there anything you would have liked to have done differently? How would you like to see the university improve in the future? 

Since 2009, this university has been the fastest growing university in the UNC system. We have grown 40 percent since 2009, so we’ve added almost 5,000 students. Under my administration, I’ve added almost 3,500 students. It’s a very fast-growing university, and we’re very proud of that. And in that growth, there are some areas that we’ve grown more than others. For example, we have grown our graduate program significantly, we’re up to almost 3,600 students now. When I arrived, we had like 1,600-1,700 students, so we’ve grown graduate programs, very significantly. We also have grown online education significantly, particularly in the graduate programs. So that’s also seen a major increase. 

We have grown, for example, some of the colleges. The College of Health and Human Services, in 2010, had 1,500 students, and now has this year 4,700 students. We went from 1,500 students to 4,700 students today, almost 5,000, huge growth. We have now the largest nursing school in the state with almost 3000 students— major programs in nursing, including a doctorate. We have also grown internationally. When I arrived, we had 52 partnerships internationally, we have 119 today. 

The other thing that we’ve done, which I think is important, we also got about 17 new programs approved in the past six and a half years. Now, these programs run all the way from digital arts, to data science to a bachelor now in cybersecurity— the first one in the state. So we’ve been developing very unique, forward-looking, modern programs, that attract a lot of students. Three years ago, we created the first coastal engineering bachelor in the country. And then about three years ago, the Carnegie Foundation included us in the doctoral program, so we’re now a doctoral university. And with the high research activity, [the university is] what we call an “R2.” In the system of North Carolina, we’ve got Charlotte, ECU, Greensboro, A&T, and us now as R2s. And then the other ones are Chapel Hill and state. 

I think that ascension to doctoral is very important, it puts an emphasis on research. It is going to be very defining for the nature of this university in the years to come. And the second thing, which I think [will] also be very defining in the life of the university in the future, is engineering. We’ve tried back in 2008-2009 to get engineering programs approved. We didn’t get approved. Finally, we now have two engineering programs underway: coastal engineering, and intelligent systems engineering, and there’s going to be more in the future. I think engineering for an area of the state that’s growing very fast, grow[ing] engineering programs for innovation, for economic development, is going to be very important. 

And finally, I want to leave a couple of things with you: The construction we engaged [in]. Since I arrived here, we’ve garnered about $450 million of investments, and we’ve built 23 new buildings on campus. In addition to that, we “benefited,” quote-unquote, from Florence, because we had to modernize, we had to renovate some buildings, we had to change and replace roofs in buildings, etc. And in addition to that, if the legislature approves their new budget this year, we’re going to get another amount of money for our renovation of our Randall Library. I think it’s almost half a billion dollars invested in the infrastructure of the university, preparing the university for the future. I see this university as a doctoral university, with engineering in it, and 25,000 to 30,000 students in the future. It’s coming, it’s a matter of time before we become a significant player in the universe of higher education in the state.

And what advice do you have for your successor?

For my successor, I listed three things here. One is: make sure that you get the strategic plan down and set the goals, and stay focused. I think our success here was based on that, even though we had the hurricanes, even though we had the social justice movement, even though we had the pandemic, we stayed focused. And that was important. So set the goals and stay focused. The second thing is: from the very beginning, work very closely particularly with particularly faculty and staff, but also students. Make sure that you reach out to the students especially. 

The students are the rewarding part of it to a large extent. Since I’ve been here, we’ve graduated 27,000 students, and by the time I leave in June, we will have graduated 32,000 students. That’s about a third of all the alumni of the university. So, to be able to do that and to be able to influence and help enable these future citizens of the country. Set the goal, stay focused, and do not allow any, quote-unquote, “interference”— either natural disasters or not-so-natural disasters—to interfere. Do not lose focus, stay focused.

Thank you so much. Is there anything else that you would really like to add?

The only final thing I’d like to [say] is: [live] in the spirit of the respect compact. Let civility prevail, let the ideas be discussed. I think in this day and age where we have so much pressure having to do with the social justice movement: Let’s keep a perspective on it. Now, this country has made great progress in all kinds of things. And it would be unwise for us to lose focus of the progress we’ve made. Let’s recognize the progress, and the progress has been made on the shoulders of many, many people. 

Plus, we fought a war for it: we fought a civil war for this, thousands of people were killed. Let’s make sure that we keep this in perspective. Let’s continue advancing, let’s continue ensuring non-discriminatory policies across the board, let’s bring in and make sure that every student belongs here. One of the things I am very concerned about is when I do surveys of students, some groups of students feel that they very much belong here, other groups of students do not. So how do I make sure that that changes, so that every student, irrespective of any persuasion, that comes to this university feels that this is their place? And to be able to do that over time is going to be very important for all of us, as a society and as a university.

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