A Conversation with UNC-Chapel Hill’s New Provost, Chris Clemens

Late last year, UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor, Kevin Guskiewicz, announced the appointment of the university’s new executive vice chancellor and provost, Christopher “Chris” Clemens.

Clemens, who officially began his new role on February 1, has had a long career at UNC, having first joined the Department of Physics and Astronomy as an astrophysicist in 1998. He’s held numerous roles since then, including department chair, senior associate dean for natural sciences, senior associate dean for research and innovation in the College of Arts & Sciences, director of the Institute for Convergent Science, and chancellor’s eminent professor of convergent science.

Guskiewicz commented that Clemens’s “deep understanding of the links between rigorous interdisciplinary research, excellent teaching, and the value of free inquiry makes him the right person to take on this role at this crucial time in Carolina’s history.”

Clemens is replacing Robert Blouin, who announced last year his resignation and decision to resume his work as a faculty member in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

On April 28, the Martin Center spoke with Clemens to discuss his vision and goals for the state’s flagship university. The transcription has been edited for clarity and length.


To start off, some of our readers may not entirely know—what does a provost do? What does it mean to be “chief academic officer?” What’s in your purview?

The provost, as you say, is the chief academic officer. That means all of the deans of the schools at UNC report to the provost, and all academic personnel matters pass up to the provost’s attention. The primary role of the provost is being faculty-centered, although we are all supported by a tremendous number of staff who look to the provost to set budgets and other academic unit priorities. And also, of course, our fine students. As a chief academic officer, ultimately, the quality of their instruction depends on me doing my job well. That’s sort of the thumbnail sketch. It’s essentially an academic personnel and operations role.

In your new role as provost, what are your vision and goals for UNC going forward?

“I think the people of the state who pay us need to know what we do.”Let me start by saying, in addition to what I just described as provost, I’ve taken on a vision of this office as being the chief advocate for the faculty and for some of the university’s functions like research and teaching. I think the people of the state who pay us—and we should never forget that our salaries are paid by a combination of tuition [and] the taxpayers of North Carolina—need to know what we do. And I think when they know what we do, especially in some of our research and scholarship, it’s such a tremendous body of work and so important in the world, they [will] want to invest in it.

And so, one of my visions is that we will become better and better at describing what we do, and its importance, in ways that resonate with the people in North Carolina, that everyone will say, “why can’t we invest more in the University of North Carolina?” I think that telling the story of our faculty and our students and our staff is very important for not just this office, but for the whole university. That’s number one on the list. Number two, I think we have lots of opportunities to support our faculty careers better. And so, I’m working very hard with Amy Locklear Hertel, my executive vice provost, to build out some of our faculty support, to make sure that our faculty get the opportunities they need to advance in their careers—that they are nominated for the national awards they deserve, and so on. Faculty support and telling our stories, those are at the top of the list.

Let’s talk about some general trends in higher education. What are some initiatives that you believe are serving to fulfill higher education’s central mission? What are some areas that are in need of improvement?

Let me start by saying, what we really ought to be doing as a public university is providing the best workforce for the state and the workforce that the state needs. That’s beyond vision and goal, that’s the fundamental “baseball,” if you like, that a university provides. And that may be in tension, at times, with some of the areas of the university that are not seen as having a commercial product or as immediately accessing the economy. We have to do both. And I say this as an astronomer. Astronomy is not a field that produces, beyond knowledge, products for the market. But it does produce people who have an incredible set of skills.

I want to build an institution where no matter what you come in to do as a student, whatever your passion is, you [can] follow that passion. If it’s in history, if it’s in political science, you can develop a broad set of skills that is going to make you effective, not just in the area you chose, but beyond that area. I think universities are not always thinking this way, they’re taking an either-or approach. They’re saying we have to fund STEM, we have to fund the pragmatic engineering fields, we have to fund the things the economy needs. But what the economy needs most is people who are both passionate about their work and who are good at their work in a broad suite of skills. Broad skills around passions that may not always align to the immediate industries we have, but skills that can align to any industry and innovate in any place. I think that’s the goal: to build an institution that can do that. And if we can do that, we’ll be the best public university in America.

UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Chris Clemens

Previous to this role, you’ve had a long career at UNC. Can you tell us a little bit about your previous work at UNC? Anything that you’re particularly proud of looking back?

I spent many years as an ordinary research faculty [member], teaching my classes and doing research mostly funded by the National Science Foundation. Then I became a department chair, and then a senior associate dean. And then I was tasked to start some new enterprises. I think you know about the Program for Public Discourse. I’m very proud that we have this program, whose mission it is to teach our students what good discourse looks like, what are the norms for discourse, what it is to marshal and hear and present evidence in favor of some argument, and to persuade people. I think our students will get, from both watching the discourse as it’s modeled in that program and in training in the classroom, I hope they’ll get the skill of persuasion. That’s what we need to be teaching our students. And that’s not a skill that’s just a written skill. That’s a skill that very much has to do with discourse. I’m really proud that we have got a program now with folks [thinking] about that in the new curriculum.

I also was director and helped found the Institute of Convergent Science. And really, I’m bringing that concept to the provost’s office around things besides science. What is convergence? Well, instead of starting with a discipline—physics, astronomy—start with a question. Academia is not arranged around questions, it’s arranged around fields. And that arrangement sometimes keeps us from addressing questions. What if we start with a question like the one you asked: What would make the best university today? What would be the public service we could do best? There’s not an answer to that that’s confined to one area. And for some science questions, you need to build a team from ten different places to answer the question.

I’m proud of the work that the Institute has set off, which is basically to take the innovation that we do in the lab and figure out how to apply it to the right problems in the world, to innovate. But we were thinking there about technologies, and now, at this desk, I’m thinking about everything. How do we take the tools we have in training the future workforce, and the students who come who may be interested in an obscure area like astronomy, and let them follow their passion while we give them the skills to succeed at anything? That’s what we need to be thinking about.

You’ve already discussed the Program for Public Discourse, but I’m going to still ask this question and see if there’s anything additional you’d like to add. UNC has made progress in its support of free speech in the last few years, and one positive step forward has been the establishment of the Program for Public Discourse. As someone who helped launch the program, can you tell us a little bit more about the program, what it has done in its first couple of years, and how it plans to further support civil dialogue on campus?

“Let’s bring into the classroom oral communication centered on marshaling evidence to persuade. Let’s get our students to practice doing that.”I’ll even go beyond that and tell you how it fits into a kind of ecosystem of what I hope are numerous things happening in the free speech area. I will start by reminding you and your readers that UNC has maintained a green rating by FIRE more or less consistently. I’m very proud of that. And that’s the work of very many people, not just one program. That being said, this particular program is taking on what we call in our new IDEAs in Action curriculum a “capacity.” What’s beautiful about our new curriculum is it’s not just centered on those disciplines and topics that I was talking about, that sort of “fill the slots” in university; it’s looking at the broad set of skills and capacities that students need to do anything in every discipline. And one of those is oral communication, and that figures prominently in the curriculum.

Part of the Program for Public Discourse’s premise was not just “let’s have speakers who can model good discourse,” and not just “let’s show our students how to do this and encourage them to do it in a public arena,” but “let’s bring into the classroom in multiple ways, multiple modes, multiple pedagogies, oral communication centered on marshaling evidence to persuade” and “let’s get our students [to] practice doing that, even around topics that are sensitive—so that when a topic comes up that’s sensitive, they know how to address it within the norms of discourse, and they’re able to be persuasive about things in a public forum.”

This is a skill we think every student needs, and the Program for Public Discourse is both having public programs for that and building curricular strength. Kevin Marinelli in that program has built a set of tools for faculty who are afraid to approach some topics in the classroom and is helping to teach them how to approach sensitive topics by setting the frame and the discursive norms in a way that students can take these on, and no one walks out in tears or is offended by the discourse that’s going on.

General education is a required and guided curriculum that roughly comprises half of the coursework students take in their undergraduate careers. You already mentioned “IDEAs in Action,” the forthcoming general education curriculum that is set to launch this fall, and of which the Martin Center has been critical. What are your thoughts on general education and its purpose? And what would you like to see in general education in the future?

That’s a great question. And I’ll acknowledge that it’s not only the James G. Martin Center that has been critical of our curriculum. Some of the faculty have been critical of the curriculum, because change is hard, and not everyone embraces this “capacity-based” model. They feel there’s a certain canon or body of knowledge that ought to have priority over other bodies of knowledge. And we can debate that. I think that’s part of what’s great about academia. The faculty decide what it is they’re teaching at some level within the bounds of the curriculum, and they have their own opinions that they can argue and debate about.

What I believe and what I will debate in favor of is: the facts are interesting, and you do need to assemble a certain set of walking-around knowledge to be a citizen. I think there are some challenges there, now that the internet allows facts to be at your fingertips. Young people aren’t amassing a sort of walkabout set of facts, and even some adults are reliant on looking up [information] on Google. As you see people listening to a lecture, you’ll see them fact-checking everything that comes out of someone’s mouth. That’s different from listening and assembling knowledge into wisdom. So there are challenges around basic facts.

But I think the premise of the new curriculum is: let’s be agnostic as to the area of inquiry. Let’s teach capacities like critical thinking and reasoning, argumentation, based on evidence of persuasion, based on every rhetorical tool you have at your disposal. Let’s teach those skills alongside the portable facts that each faculty member brings from their scholarship to the classroom. And then you will have very effective citizens and a very effective workforce. There are not many people who would argue with that premise. Now how you do it operationally, we can talk about the details. And, look, it’ll be experimental. The college will implement this, and they’ll pivot in the places where it’s not working well, and they’ll make it better.

The one thing not to forget is that we have some of the most tremendous professional educators in the world on our campus. They really do know what they’re doing in the classroom. We may not like every area of scholarship on this campus, we may not agree with every argument that a faculty member would make—I’ve spent my life arguing with other faculty. It’s part of the fun of academia. But I don’t think we should call into question how good the faculty are at what they do. And you need only talk to our students about their experience in the classroom. With very few exceptions, what you hear is they feel when they’re in the classroom, they’re in the presence of real scholars with real skills at teaching both the subject area and the skills that they’re going to need out in the world. The curriculum is only as good as its faculty, and we have some of the best faculty in the world, so I know we can do this.

What advice would you give to first-year students at UNC? How can they make the most of their time in college?

What a great question. I’m going to reflect back to something I said before. Whatever it is you’re passionate about, pursue that. Don’t be talked into a false bargain about the future workforce. The demands of the workforce are changing so rapidly that in the four years you’re going to be in college, you can’t anticipate what’s going to be marketable as a subject area. Develop the marketable skills and develop them everywhere you go. In student organizations, take leadership roles. Learn to speak in public in a way that’s convincing, compelling, persuasive, and, dare I say, inoffensive. The job of someone who’s trying to convince is to not offend, but rather to soothe the person they’re talking to, and to convince them of the propositions. I think when our discourse becomes combative, it becomes ineffective. Don’t come to college to argue ineffectively on some principles that you seek to promote; come to learn and to learn those skills that are going to make you persuasive for your whole life, and effective.

And do some data science. We didn’t get to talk about data science, but reading and arithmetic, and math, which were the substrate of scholarship for a thousand years, have now been augmented with big data. We have so much data at our disposal in digital form that it’s tragic not to have some skills around what to do with that data, how to handle that data. And so we’re starting a new school of data science and society to make sure that we offer to students, not just in the school but in the whole curriculum, some skills with data, because that will be as critical as reading and writing. My advice to students is: follow your passion, learn to communicate and persuade, and learn something about data.

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