Folt embarks on crash course in Carolina
Chancellor Carol Folt spent her first week on the job in a classroom of sorts.
Her crash course in all things Carolina focuses on listening and learning as much as possible from the people here – what they love, what they do and what their aspirations are.
“An institution is really the people, and you get to know a place by meeting the people and understanding why they are here,” said Folt, who became Carolina’s 11th chancellor on July 1.
Within the first two days, she had met with Carolina students, faculty, staff, administrators and trustees, as well as Gov. Pat McCrory and state legislative leaders. And she was in Kenan Stadium with town officials for the Fourth of July celebration.
Everywhere, Folt has listened to people’s suggestions, hopes and enthusiasm about what Carolina is – and what it can be. She talked with the Gazette about what she is hearing.
What do people have on their wish lists for Carolina?
I’m hearing about the things people love and their passion for this place; I’m not hearing complaints. People are saying, ‘What can I do for you?’ and that’s quite lovely as a welcome. I’m not sure that would be true every place. People really want to know how we can work together to make Carolina even stronger.
There is a lot of great talk about the future of higher education and how we can maintain a national leadership position in the things that matter so much to us.
Have you heard anything surprising?
I fell in love with Carolina partly because of the intensity and passion people have, and I am very excited about their sincerity and the freshness in the way they express what they love. I couldn’t have predicted that outpouring, and I am really taken by it.
What else do you have planned?
In my campus video message, I asked people to send me two things they love about Carolina and two things they want to become stronger. It’s an important part of my crash course in Carolina. I really hope people will send their ideas to me at WelcomeCarol@unc.edu. I plan to read each message.
Also, Jim Dean and I thought it would be great for the two of us to go together to meet with people in the schools and libraries across campus during the next few months. Jim is not new to Carolina, of course, but he is now wearing a new hat as provost, and it was his idea – and a great one – for us to go into the places where people work, because you really learn about people and their work by being in their spaces.
In your video message, you said the meetings you’ve had with the campus community affirm what you knew: There truly is a Carolina spirit. How do you describe that spirit?
Even in these first days on campus, I can already say that this is a very friendly place. It matters that people greet one another when they pass on the street. Those connections are important, and I love that – hearing people say they value interacting with others is music to my ears.
There also is deep affection for particular places on campus and a blending of support for many different kinds of activities, from arts performances to athletics events. One thing that excited me about coming here is the real diversity of things that happen on our campus.
What truly seems to define the Carolina spirit, though, is a profound love of this place – and a genuine pride in the scholarly output. The tradition of strong research and academics, the many leaders in just about every field who have come from Carolina and are making a difference in the world – these are things that characterize our University.
I come from a place that, like Carolina, finds its own distinctive passion. And I love being somewhere that has a sense of tradition and a proud history.
You’ve talked about the importance of ‘creative disruption’ in embracing newness and turning transition and challenge into opportunity. What does this mean for Carolina?
A great place turns uncertainty or transition to its advantage, with the result being something even more exciting going forward.
If there was ever a moment in higher education where we’re all open to new ways of doing things, this would be it. It is so exciting to be in a place that’s pre-adapted to that idea. People are already thinking about change in a positive way, by holding onto the traditions and defining values but also realizing that the way we work might change. That’s what I feel here.
One example is the strategic plan [Athletic Director] Bubba Cunningham initiated, which has very good ideas for strengthening the relationship between academic and athletic performance. All the coaches are aligned with that mission, and I’m sure the student-athletes are excited about it.
And [School of Medicine Dean] Bill Roper talks about the changes his faculty members have dealt with, especially concerning federal research funding. That loss of resources is definitely a disruption, but innovative people, as we have on our campus, say, ‘Let’s work together in a way that’s even more compelling because of its interdisciplinary focus.’
You have spoken passionately about the value of public higher education. What are some of the challenges it is facing?
I believe that public universities are the reason our country has thrived, especially post-World War II. That was the great boom in the American public university, modeled, of course, after the dream that was built right here at Carolina.
Within the last 60 or 70 years, higher education really became the engine of innovation for the country. We not only produce the people who hold the jobs, but the people who create them. If our country doesn’t adhere to that principle, we stand to lose so much of what has defined us.
In the United States, the majority of our students are trained in our public universities; that is our real covenant with the people – that education will be available to students of every state, from every walk of life. Our great publics provide this outstanding learning experience for our students embedded in immense research creativity.
In my opinion, it is that exposure of students at the moment of learning to the innovation spawned by research that defines the greatest universities. And that happens primarily at our excellent public research universities. I think they are the best investment in the future of our country and something I am concerned about if we don’t continue that investment.
What assets does Carolina have in dealing with these challenges?
At Carolina, people matter. The commitment to undergraduate education hand in hand with the commitment to research can distinguish an outstanding education. It gives every student the opportunity to thrive – and it’s a very special aspect of Carolina, something many schools aspire to attain.
The best undergraduate education includes hands-on experience because people learn best by doing. Already, many students at Carolina have one-on-one experiences in laboratories and studios, in faculty-sponsored research projects and through dynamic relationships with mentors.
They’re learning, from breadth and depth to practice. And that’s the way of the future: to take what we teach and give students opportunities for real experience. That’s a strong asset for Carolina.
How does the financial picture affect what we can accomplish?
All colleges and universities are facing tightening budgets, and that is always a concern. People here have been doing as much as they can to work within those constraints to maintain the quality of teaching and research, and preserving that quality is extremely important to me.
I know we will need to be very active in seeking investments in Carolina. Maintaining an excellent education that is accessible and affordable, being able to create a research/innovation hub for groundbreaking work – and doing it all in a tight budget world is a true challenge.
What else do you want people at Carolina to know?
I’d love for people to say hi to me and introduce themselves. I come from a place where I knew everyone, and I look forward to getting to know people here, to hearing what they love about Carolina and what we can do even better.
My early conversations with campus leaders have been both enlightening and thought provoking. It’s obvious that faculty governance is extremely strong on our campus. It’s equally meaningful that the Employee Forum is working to maintain a strong, positive voice that represents all staff members. And I absolutely love that our student body president sits on the Board of Trustees – that’s a real symbol of what the Carolina spirit is!