Skip to content

University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Carol Folt prepares to move on to her ‘new and next’

At an Employee Forum reception for Chancellor Carol L. Folt, Chair Shayna Hill presents Folt with a certificate of appreciation.

Chancellor Carol L. Folt departs the Carolina campus this week, after serving nearly six years as the University’s 11th chancellor. Carolina’s first woman chancellor, Folt arrived on campus in 2013, vowing to develop new ways of doing business, intensify entrepreneurial activities and adopt “a powerful unifying strategy for Carolina.”

“I believe that Carolina can indeed be the leader in shaping the path for the great public university in America,” she said in her 2013 installation address. “We can show how you do it — to be the one that preserves excellence and innovation, access and affordability, a deep commitment to the state, and gathers strength to innovate and meet new challenges.”

Since then, Folt has accomplished these goals and so much more, all anchored by The Blueprint for Next, the University’s first strategic framework. Led by this guide to decision-making for the next decade, Folt oversaw the update of the campus master plan, the launch of the largest fundraising campaign in University history, the establishment of makerspaces and interdisciplinary hubs on campus to spark innovation and entrepreneurship, and the unprecedented rise in research at Carolina to benefit people in the state, the nation and the world.

“Chancellor Folt accomplished so much while leading our University through complex and controversial issues. Her visionary leadership — exemplified by an inspiring strategic plan; successful capital campaign; commitment to diversity, affordability and accessibility — will leave a lasting legacy on this campus,” said Faculty Chair Leslie Parise.

As chancellor, Folt was frequently on the sidelines cheering on student athletes. During her tenure, the Tar Heels won 16 ACC championships and four NCAA titles and had three top 10 Directors Cup finishes. After its April 3, 2017, NCAA championship win over Gonzaga University in Phoenix, an estimated 55,000 fans rushed Franklin Street to celebrate the victory. Following the win, the Carolina community welcomed the team back home with a celebration in the Dean Smith Center.

Tar Heel bred

While visiting the campus before her selection as chancellor, Folt attended her first Carolina-Duke basketball game and was immediately caught up in Carolina fever. Some might also say she has been a good omen for the school’s sports teams: Carolina Athletics won 16 ACC titles and four national championships while Folt was chancellor.

“Her support has been unyielding, and we appreciate all she has done for our student-athletes,” Director of Athletics Bubba Cunningham said. “Her dedication to our student-athlete experience and their success has been second to none.”

Folt embraced her leadership role, sporting splashes of Carolina blue in her wardrobe, frequently appearing on the sidelines of athletic events and swaying with students and alums to “Hark the Sound.” Throughout her tenure she sought ways to get out of her South Building office and into the campus community to mingle with students, faculty and staff. She handed out pizza in the Pit and cookies at the Bell Tower to students and was never too busy to accept a request to pose for a selfie. One of her favorite Carolina traditions was presiding over Spring and Winter Commencement, delivering congratulations to the sea of Carolina blue seated before her.

She also served as an international Tar Heel ambassador, traveling across Africa to formalize partnerships and highlight research collaborations, going scuba diving with scientists from the Galápagos Science Center, and traveling to Stockholm twice— once to see professor Aziz Sancar receive his Nobel Prize in Chemistry and again to meet renowned physicist Stephen Hawking at a conference co-sponsored by Carolina. Overall, she visited Carolina research and service outposts in 10 countries, encouraging the University’s commitment to global scholarship and highlighting the ways that Carolina research impacts lives across the globe.

Early excitement

When Folt arrived on campus in July 2013, she brought a new burst of energy to a campus demoralized by ongoing investigations into its academic and athletics practices. 

“She can bring fresh eyes, fresh perspective to the University of North Carolina,” then-UNC System President Tom Ross said of Folt’s appointment. “I am convinced she has the right mix of experience, expertise, skills, and passion needed to be a truly great chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.”

The anticipation of the installation of the first woman to lead the University since its 1793 founding also electrified the campus.

“I was honored and humbled to be asked to lead America’s first public University, an institution at the forefront of public higher education,” Folt said. “I was proud to join that legacy of firsts by becoming the University’s first female chancellor.”

Her appointment was an inspiration for other women on campus, including Emily Blackburn, vice president of the executive branch of student government.

“Chancellor Folt taught me how to be not only a leader but how to be a woman who is also a leader,” Blackburn said.

On Oct. 6, 2017, Folt launched the University’s most ambitious fundraising campaign, “For All Kind: the Campaign for Carolina,” which aims to raise $4.25 billion by Dec. 31, 2022, including $1 billion for undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships. To date, the University is more than halfway to its goal.

Leaving a legacy

The Blueprint for Next, the strategic framework that will guide decisions at the University for the next decade, is a key part of Folt’s legacy at Carolina. The framework, developed with ex-
tensive input from campus stakeholders, serves not only as a
reminder of the University’s historic values, such as being “of the public, for the public,” but also its aspiration of “innovation made fundamental.” Already The Blueprint for Next has guided the update of the Campus Master Plan, to make sure the University’s physical development aligns with its strategic framework.

The Blueprint for Next will also direct where funding and other resources go in coming years, a change reflected in the thematic signature initiatives of the University’s largest-ever fundraising campaign, For All Kind: The Campaign for Carolina. The University is more than halfway to reaching the goal of $4.25 billion by the end of 2022. The money will go to support scholarships, study abroad, interdisciplinary research, the arts and many other programs to educate the next generation of leaders.

“I have had the privilege of working closely with Carol and have seen firsthand her passion for this great University,” said David Routh, vice chancellor for development. “The Campaign for Carolina that she launched continues and is thriving. Its success so far is one of many reasons I am so optimistic about Carolina’s future. In my five years here, I have never been more excited about the projects I see in our pipeline, the amazing strengths of our faculty and students, and our collective ability to make this world a better place.”

Folt also rebuilt Carolina’s senior administration, recruiting a diverse team of high-performing leaders to address critical campus needs in fundraising, communications, innovation/
entrepreneurship, public affairs and workforce strategy, equity and engagement.

“Carol has worked tirelessly to make our university a stronger institution, and this campus is a far better place thanks to her dedication and perseverance,” said Haywood Cochrane, chair of the Board of Trustees.

Folt presided over 11 Commencements, celebrating the hard work and accomplishments of thousands of Carolina graduates at both the winter and spring ceremonies. She reminded each of the graduates that the Tar Heel family stretches across the globe and that their friends, family and professors can’t wait to see what they will achieve.

Belief in education

A critical driver behind Folt’s willingness to take on Carolina’s challenges back in 2013 was her personal belief in the power of public higher education, as symbolized by the nation’s first public university.

Folt was born in Akron, Ohio, the middle of five children and the grandchild of Albanian immigrants. Although she spent most of her professional academic career at Dartmouth College, Folt often referred to her own education at “three great public universities.” She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California, Santa Barbara and her doctorate from the University of California, Davis. She did postdoctoral work at Michigan State University.

She can also relate to students facing economic hardship, having enrolled at a community college for her first year of classes to save money and then working her way through her undergraduate years as a part-time waitress. That experience is part of what fuels her passion for increasing access and affordability in higher education, and to keep Carolina the best value in college education — ranked No. 1 by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance 17 times.

The Carolina Edge — a signature initiative of the Campaign for Carolina proposed by the chancellor — is a campus-wide scholarship effort to ensure the University can recruit the very best students. The initiative, which includes all scholarships on campus, aims to raise $1 billion to support students at every level
— undergraduate, graduate and professional.
Folt also raised more than $15 million for the Chancellor’s Science Scholars program, which provides financial and academic support to high-achieving undergraduate students of all backgrounds who intend to pursue STEM degrees and careers in scientific leadership. And in October 2018, she announced the Blue Sky Scholars program, a privately funded scholarship for North Carolina students from middle-class backgrounds that complements the Carolina Covenant program, which provides financial aid to students at or below the poverty level.

“If it wasn’t for the Carolina Covenant program, I don’t know that I would be here,” said Covenant Scholar Nico Gomez, a junior majoring in media and journalism and business.

Folt also oversaw over the expansion of the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program to 13 community colleges, allowing hundreds of students to transfer their community college credits and complete their degrees at Carolina.

“Chancellor Folt has been an incredible champion for excellence, opportunity and affordability, and she has worked tirelessly on behalf of great students from all backgrounds,” said Stephen M. Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions. “She’s made it possible for our students — all of whom earned their places here — to enroll and succeed regardless of their incomes. I am deeply grateful to her.”

A lover of the arts, Folt sought to elevate their status by establishing new arts spaces and bringing public art to campus. In 2016, the University launched Arts Everywhere, a campus-wide initiative to embed the arts into daily life at Carolina. In 2018, CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio opened in downtown Chapel Hill, seeking to break down barriers and innovate art through interactive installations, immersive experiences and pushing performance past the stage and into the audience.

As the leader of the flagship university in a state that boasts several military bases, Folt took a special interest in helping veterans and military families. She worked with veterans on campus to establish a Carolina Veterans Resource Center as a support space for military and veteran students and helped develop the Red, White and Carolina Blue challenge to raise $20 million for scholarships for students from military families. And she worked with the School of Medicine and Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg to design a program to help military medics transition to civilian physician assistants who would serve primarily in rural areas.

In 2015, Aziz Sancar was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his groundbreaking work in mapping DNA repair. Sancar was the second Carolina faculty member to receive this award. Oliver Smithies won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for his pioneering work on gene targeting and knockout mice, techniques that gave researchers the ability to study diseases like never before. Both Smithies and Sancar donated gold-plated bronze replicas of their Nobel Prize medals to the University in 2016.

Importance of research

Before transitioning to administration at Dartmouth, Folt earned her academic credentials as a researcher studying the effects of mercury and arsenic on aquatic life and human health. She arrived at Dartmouth as one of only five women scientists on the faculty there and led research projects that resulted in changes in national and global policy and consumption advisories around the world. Not surprisingly, this experience continues to influence her leadership and priorities, making her a vocal champion of research and innovation.

“As a respected biologist, Carol has led by example to encourage women to enter STEM fields,” said Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “She has helped us bring makerspaces and a culture of innovation and creativity to our campus. She understands the value of a broad and deep liberal arts education — one that prepares our students for the careers
of tomorrow.”

In Folt’s years as chancellor, the University topped $1 billion in federal research expenditures and rose to fifth nationally in research funding.

“Carolina research has grown dramatically during Chancellor Folt’s tenure, which is great news for the health and well-being of North Carolinians and the economy of our state. Our research rankings strengthen North Carolina’s reputation as a global leader in fields such as cancer, environment, genetics/genomics and population-related research and highlight our deep strengths in arts and humanities scholarship,” said Robert A. Blouin, provost and executive vice chancellor. “The Blueprint for Next capitalizes on this outstanding talent by creating opportunities for people to reach their full potential in an environment that supports innovation and creativity in all that we do.”

The culture of innovation already in place flourished even more — with research hubs, makerspaces and support for intellectual property-based companies — birthing 336 start-ups generating $10.6 billion in annual revenue. In 2015, Carolina and GlaxoSmithKline united to form Qura Therapeutics, a jointly owned company with a research center on campus and the first public-private partnership dedicated to the study and cure of HIV/AIDS.

“When Chancellor Folt arrived at Carolina, we ranked 13th for federal research funding. And today our ranking is at fifth, which is an amazing accomplishment,” said Terry Magnuson, vice chancellor for research. “Our research really has impact on the lives and economy of the people of North Carolina in the world and very importantly on a critical component of educating our students. Chancellor Folt’s support of research at Carolina has been the driving force that has brought us to where we are today.”

Every year, students, first responders and community members participate in a memorial stair run at Kenan Memorial Stadium to honor and remember the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Organized by students of Carolina’s ROTC program, participants climb 2,076 stairs, the same number of steps that were in each of the World Trade Center Towers.

Tackling tough issues

Folt came to Carolina at a turbulent time in the University’s history, in the midst of the discovery of academic irregularities dating back to 1992, which led to accreditation reviews and a yearlong probation. The new chancellor authorized an extensive independent investigation and oversaw the continuing policy and practice overhaul begun in 2011. Results included the implementation of 70 reforms and initiatives to improve academic oversight and accountability, a finding of no NCAA bylaw violations by the University and a 10-year renewal of the University’s academic accreditation.

Another lingering issue was an on-going investigation by the U.S. Office for Civil Rights about the ways in which the University previously handled sexual assault and sexual violence cases. Under Folt’s guidance, the University updated the policy on sexual violence through extensive cross-campus collaboration and the work of a task force. In June 2018, the University reached an agreement with OCR, which recognized Carolina’s proactive efforts to “maintain a campus environment free from discrimination, harassment and related misconduct, including sexual violence and sexual assault.”

Folt also had to contend with the more remote past of the nation’s oldest public university. In 2015, Folt and the Board of Trustees authorized the removal of the former North Carolina Ku Klux Klan leader William Saunders’ name from a campus building, and established a history task force charged with creating a museum-style explanation of the context of the renaming. The task force would also work to address the contextualization of McCorkle Place and the Confederate Monument known as Silent Sam.

But Silent Sam became a lightning rod for increasing tensions as the campus got caught up in a national debate over the place of such monuments. At Carolina, the state-owned Confederate Monument is protected by a 2015 state law prohibiting its removal. The statue remained in place until toppled by protesters on Aug. 20, 2018. As Silent Sam’s future remained in limbo, Folt used her 2018 University Day message to apologize for the University’s role in slavery, a first in Carolina’s 225-year history. On January 14, Folt authorized the removal of the Confederate Monument’s pedestal and announced her resignation.

“Carol Folt is a friend, an outstanding leader of an outstanding flagship, who has stewarded and guided her university through treacherous waters,” said William Roper, interim president of the UNC System and former dean of the UNC School of Medicine. “North Carolina owes Carol a debt of gratitude for her service and commitment.”

Established by Folt in 2016, Arts Everywhere is a campus-wide initiative to embed the arts into daily life at Carolina. To celebrate this initiative, Carolina hosts Arts Everywhere Day each spring, providing a full day of engaging artistic experiences across campus. As part of the celebration, colorful pianos are placed across campus for the community, including Law School Dean Martin Brinkley, to enjoy.

Time to pass the baton

In a relay race, the runner doesn’t come to a dead stop before handing the baton to the next teammate. Instead, the handoff comes in the motion of the stride, so as not to break the momentum. That’s what Folt’s hope is for her successor, that the next chancellor will be able to take on the job without a significant break in progress.

“As I thought about all we had accomplished in achieving the vision I had for Carolina, I knew it was the right time for me to pass the leadership of our outstanding University to the next chancellor and look ahead for my own ‘new and next,’” she said just after announcing her resignation. “I feel like this is a good time to get ready for a new chancellor, because they are able to take advantage of this incredible momentum.”