A Tall Order
New to the University, Chancellor Carol Folt already has a lengthy to-do list
An audience of hundreds looked on as Carol Folt stepped up to the podium with trembling hands and tears in her eyes.
UNC-system President Tom Ross had just hung the chancellor’s medallion around her neck, formally inducting Folt into the office she had held since July.
“Oh boy,” the new chancellor whispered as she looked out onto the crowd.
Some of the University’s most prominent figures — top administrators, faculty and staff, along with state government officials — gathered in Polk Place on a misty afternoon in October to commemorate both the University’s founding and Folt’s chancellorship.
They delivered copious platitudes, praising Folt and her vision for the future.
“You picked a class act as a new chancellor,” Gov. Pat McCrory said at the ceremony.
Lowry Caudill, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said, “The future holds great challenges, but under Chancellor Folt’s leadership we will meet those challenges.”
“She has . . . a dedication to integrity in all matters,” said Peter Hans, chairman of the Board of Governors.
After enduring several academic and athletic scandals that damaged the University’s reputation and lowered morale, many are eager to latch onto a fresh start.
Yet all the complexities that forced former chancellor Holden Thorp out of office after five years, a position he expected to hold for much longer, still simmer.
Four months into her tenure, Folt, 61, has not yet made public her plan of action for addressing the tremendous agenda she has inherited. Issues such as wrapping up athletic policy reform, spearheading a fundraising campaign, addressing sexual assault policies and confronting a new political environment in Raleigh weigh heavy.
“It’s more of a job than any human being can do,” said John McGowan, a UNC-CH English professor and member of the chancellor search committee that selected Folt.
“The chancellor who tries to do it all will just get eaten alive.”
When Folt arrived at Dartmouth College in 1983 with her husband, David Peart, they shared a teaching position in the biology department. The two split academic duties — and a paycheck.
Eventually Folt earned her own professorship, and she conducted environmental science research on the effects of mercury in ecosystems, restoration of salmon fisheries and climate change.
When those at Dartmouth thought of Folt, they pictured her wading through ponds and lakes wearing knee-high muck boots, getting her hands dirty alongside students who worked in her laboratory.
“Carol just injected a great amount of energy into everything she did,” said Andrew Friedland, an environmental science professor at Dartmouth who co-authored a book with Folt. Friedland said Folt had the best interests of graduate students in mind, such as when she worked to raise the graduate student stipend and increase the college’s contribution toward health insurance for students.
Folt was aware that she was one of few women who participated in science at Dartmouth, Friedland said, but she never spent much time talking about it. Instead, she was focused on recruiting other women to join the science field. She was one of the first at Dartmouth to be involved with the Women in Science Project, a program geared toward freshmen that encourages women to pursue science degrees and remain in the field.
But Folt always had aspirations to be a greater influence on Dartmouth. She worked her way up the administrative ladder, rising from biology professor to dean of graduate studies, to dean of the faculty, to provost, then, to interim president in 2012.
As an administrator at Dartmouth, Folt was demanding. Some faculty describe her as “tireless,” “serious” and “intense.” While serving as provost, Folt led the college’s strategic planning process and insisted that faculty from many backgrounds participate in the effort to create a cohesive plan. It was the first time a campuswide community contributed to its development.
“She’s the one willing to put late hours into the night to make sure every T is crossed, every I is dotted. She’s pretty exacting and careful,” said Denise Anthony, sociology professor at Dartmouth and chairwoman of the faculty committee charged with drafting the strategic plan.
Anthony’s committee summarized recommendations that came from various groups on campus. She said Folt pushed committee members to review the material multiple times, which became frustrating for some.
“In that intensity, right up until the end, she was able to make a joke and say, ‘People have been telling me to push the button and stop working,’” Anthony said. “She can laugh at herself and step back from that. We worked really hard and said, ‘It’s done, we did a good job, we can now be friends,’” Anthony said.
After several interview requests a month in advance of publication, Folt was not available for comment.
Outside the meeting room, Folt was known at Dartmouth as charming and charismatic. People would comment on the trendy high heels and clothes Folt wore when she became an administrator, a change from the days working in the mud as a biologist. She would call on people by name at faculty meetings and while walking through campus. She always wanted to push Dartmouth forward and was determined to be at the forefront of advancements in academics.
Yet she was part of an administration that reigned during a time of deep budget cuts and a recession that crippled fundraising, prompting intense criticism of its policies. Former President Jim Kim, who Folt temporarily replaced when he left to be president of the World Bank in 2011, focused his attention on budget reform and fundraising -- initiatives that Folt continued during her one-year tenure.
Max Yoeli, Dartmouth student body president in 2012, published a column in the college’s student newspaper decrying Kim’s ignorance of student issues and lack of transparency. Yoeli said that after Kim’s short three-year tenure, he left behind “an unfulfilled vision and a campus in turmoil.”
In many ways, Folt’s leadership was colored by Dartmouth’s impression of Kim, which left “a bad taste in everyone’s mouth,” Anthony said.
Folt’s boldest move as interim president came when she cancelled all classes on April 24 this past spring to address controversial social problems on campus. The decision came after a group of students became the target of “threatening and abusive online posts,” according to a campus-wide email, after they stormed a show meant to welcome freshmen to protest incidents of racism, homophobia and underreported sexual assault on campus.
On this “Day of Reflection,” classes were replaced by speeches and discussions about the issues.
Some lauded Folt’s decision to bring together the Dartmouth community to address social issues. Others considered it a public relations move that didn’t result in significant change.
These conversations highlighted issues found in a widely-read Rolling Stone article that chronicled hazing at Dartmouth, published in 2012. The piece was based on the experiences of former student and Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity member Andrew Lohse, entitled “Confessions of an Ivy League Fratboy.”
In addressing allegations of hazing, the article characterizes Dartmouth as the “most insular school in the Ivy League,” as detailed by contributing editor Janet Reitman. She describes the “rampant” nature of sexual assault, closely linked to “predatory” fraternities. The article relies on Lohse as its primary source but also includes interviews with several current students, professors and alumni.
Former long-time Dartmouth music professor Jon Appleton, who has been Folt’s most outspoken critic, said he believes Folt ignored many of the social issues that appeared in the national press. Instead, she primarily focused on private fundraising from wealthy alumni, he said, even when the faculty called on her to take a stronger stand on issues such as sexual assault and alcohol abuse.
“She’s smart and she’s ambitious and she’s without principle,” Appleton said.
Folt was born into a traditional Midwestern home, growing up in Akron, Ohio with her four siblings in what her older sister, Lee Vucovich, described as a “low-key lifestyle.”
Her parents emphasized the importance of education to their children and both were the first in their families to attend college. Her father was an engineer at Goodrich Corp., and her mother spent some time in college.
Folt and her siblings went to the movies on weekends and scrambled to discover new books at the library. They attended Sunday school and chased fireflies in the yard at night. The family didn’t watch much television, but exceptions were made for Cleveland Indians and Browns games.
Folt’s grandparents were immigrants from Albania who passed through Ellis Island. Their home in Akron temporarily housed fellow Albanian immigrants who were settling into life in the U.S. Folt grew up surrounded by Albanian culture, celebrating holidays with traditional food.
Leaving for California to attend college, Folt first spent a year at a community college to save money, then transferred to the University of California-Santa Barbara. She worked her way through school, waitressing part-time at diners.
At first she dabbled in creative areas, declaring majors in English and studio art. It wasn’t until she took introductory science courses that her ambition to become a scientist formed. She then went on to University of California-Davis for graduate school and did postdoctoral research at Michigan State University.
Folt met her husband, David Peart, at college in California. They have two children together: Noah, 27, and Tessa, 25.
“She was probably the world’s greatest aunt to my children,” said Vucovich, adding that the two would meet at amusement parks during the year to take their children on rides their husbands refused to go on.
“My children grew up knowing her as an absolutely, incredibly fun aunt. It wasn’t until they went to high school or college that they began to realize that the other half of her was this amazing scientist.”
Vucovich said when she watched the live stream of Folt being formally announced as the new chancellor, she burst into tears.
When people describe Folt’s personality, they say that she’s energetic and passionate. People say that she’s fun to be around, and whether it’s at a football game or in a meeting, Folt is fully engaged. She’s a furious note-taker and a close talker. And at barely 5 feet 2 inches tall, Folt is usually seen with others towering above her.
“She is such a big person in a small package,” Vucovich said.
Chancellor search committee members immediately perked up when Folt first walked into the room last spring.
The committee members had been tasked with a serious responsibility as UNC-CH’s future hung in the balance. The University was at a time of transition as top administrators were rapidly vacating offices in South Building.
“There is no room for error, as we saw with the whole mess that Chancellor Thorp got into,” McGowan said. “The fact that she’s a woman is a bonus, that’s great. It’s great to have a first woman chancellor, but you just have to be looking for the best person.”
The committee selected three finalists who they recommended to UNC-system President Tom Ross. Folt was the final pick, and her chancellorship was announced on April 12.
They were concerned with what Folt could do for UNC-CH, rather than what she accomplished at Dartmouth, said Jan Boxill, committee member and UNC philosophy professor.
She had all the qualities that the committee wanted to find, said member Roger Perry, who also served on the committee that selected Holden Thorp. This time around, Perry said the applicants were of a higher quality than in the previous search.
Their only concern about Folt was that she lacked the institutional knowledge of a public university and was unfamiliar with the Southern culture that UNC-CH is so closely tied to.
“But that’s not a tar spill in the rocket ship,” Perry said.
Every minute of Folt’s schedule was booked upon arriving at the University.
Her first week was filled with cabinet meetings, phone calls to Board of Trustees members and dinners at the Carolina Inn with donors.
On the first day of classes, Folt was introduced to the School of Medicine, launching a campus tour with the intent of meeting as many people as possible — faculty, staff, students and alumni.
Yet as Folt’s first 100 days as chancellor have passed, the listening tour continues. She’s taking her time announcing concrete steps on how she plans to address the myriad issues on campus.
When asked if Folt has shared any first year goals, Boxill said they have not discussed that timeline.
“She’s not going to come in here like gangbusters and say ‘Here’s the things that have to be done,” Boxill said.
“But one of the things which she has done, which has been great for her, is to get to know the University through all kinds of different eyes.”
Jim Dean, provost and vice chancellor of student affairs, works closer with Folt than anyone. He said there are times Folt will be working in her office until 11 p.m.
Dean has been designated the leader of athletic reforms, instead of Folt. The Academic Support Program for Student Athletes, a group that examines policies that affect student athletes, now reports directly to the provost. Dean will oversee the implementation of some recommendations from a report by Hunter Rawlings, president of the American Association of Universities, that suggest how to find the balance between athletics and academics.
But Folt’s primary initiative remains establishing relationships with key stakeholders, Dean said, which is less tangible and more emotional.
“It’s not something that you can really count or necessarily have metrics for, but it’s a really important part of the job,” he said. “As a leader you want to try to reinforce a sense of pride and enthusiasm about the University.”
Student Body President Christy Lambden has been the most visible student connected to Folt, appearing at sporting events, University ceremonies and Board of Trustees meetings at her side. He said the two have primarily discussed issues such as sexual assault and drop/add policies, along with tuition affordability. Lambden deflected the question when asked to identify Folt’s first-year goals and what positions Folt has shared with him.
We haven’t seen any drastic changes by Folt yet, he said, because she’s patiently listening to all sides before making decisions.
The weekend of Folt’s installation as chancellor, the Student Union hosted “Folt Fest,” a carnival-like event for students to meet Folt. A line of students stretched out the Student Union door as they waited for plates of free barbecue, corn and cotton candy. Folt flitted among groups of students, snapping pictures of them on her pink iPhone.
“She really engages with students and has fun, which I don’t think we’ve really seen from a chancellor in awhile,” Lambden said.
Folt traveled to Raleigh to meet with Gov. McCrory and other state officials, such as Republican senators Phil Berger and Tom Apodaca, on her second day in office. It was the first step in an external relations strategy aimed to build positive relationships with legislators.
Since the recession hit five years ago, the UNC system has suffered a collective loss of $400 million in funding by the General Assembly. During Folt’s first year, the state budget has cut state funding to the entire UNC-system by $66 million.
As programs die out from lack of funding and faculty salaries stay stagnant, leaders from public universities across the state are looking to Folt as their main advocate.
“If you don’t have those relationships, you can’t get in the door,” said Jennifer Willis, UNC-CH director of state relations. “And if you can’t get in the door, it’s really hard to get people’s ears.”
Willis said Folt has approached state lobbying with a level of enthusiasm not seen in prior University administrations.
McCrory ignited a firestorm in April when he made comments on a radio talk show that discounted the value of a liberal arts education, saying that he doesn’t believe tax dollars should be used to help students at UNC take courses that might not guarantee employment.
“If you want to take gender studies that’s fine,” he said on the show. “Go to a private school and take it.”
While McCrory sat next to Boxill on stage at University Day, he told her he admires Folt’s energy and willingness to learn about the state.
“He does have respect for her. I think he’ll listen to her,” Boxill said. “Maybe I’m pollyannish, but I’m optimistic.”
Folt’s Raleigh-focused external relations strategy comes at a time when some faculty feel disrespected by the aftermath of UNC-CH’s recent academic and athletic scandals.
McGown said he’s surprised more faculty have not immediately jumped on the bandwagon in support of Folt. Instead, they’ve adopted a “wait-and-see” approach to her administration.
“I think faculty feel burned,” he said. “There’s a real weariness from the faculty that we didn’t seem to get out in front of the athletic scandals...It’s bad enough that there’s been cuts, and the faculty salary falling again. But when we’ve been shamed in the media, and shamed in the public eye, I think that really hurts morale.”
Faculty retention is a major issue that Folt needs to address, Boxill noted. She said that during meetings with Folt, they’ve discussed allocating money for incentives to help keep faculty at UNC-CH.
Universities such as Duke and Vanderbilt had the most success in drawing UNC-CH faculty. Of the 76 faculty members who received outside offers from other universities in the past year, only 28 — or 37 percent — remained.
Ron Strauss, executive vice provost and chief international officer, said there’s a misperception that there’s a mass exodus of faculty, when instead, the recruitment process is strong enough to prevent a net loss.
And he said low faculty morale has not translated into more faculty leaving for other opportunities.
“In the dance of faculty retention, I have never heard someone say ‘I’m demoralized’,” he said.
As the public face of the institution, Folt will lead the University’s upcoming capital campaign -- an undertaking that has been long-delayed. The most recent setback was the 2012 resignation of Matt Kupec, who formerly held the chief fundraiser position, following a scandal in which he spent University money on personal trips.
Folt named David Routh, a UNC-CH alum and former director of gift planning at the University, as Kupec’s replacement in early October. Routh has held the job for just a few weeks, which makes it too early to announce a comprehensive strategy for a campaign that was once forecasted to raise nearly $3 billion.
Major planning for the campaign was contingent on the announcement of the vice chancellor for communications and public affairs, a new hire under Folt’s administration, Routh said.
Folt sent a campus-wide email Nov. 11 announcing Joel Curran as the new vice chancellor, stating that he has “an intimate understanding” of public relations strategies. Curran, a UNC-CH alumnus, left his position as the managing director of MSLGROUP in New York City, the world’s fourth largest public relations agency.
Routh said the University’s public relations strategy will be formed now that the latest piece of Folt’s leadership team has been decided.
“(Curran) was knowledgeable about the problems and believes in transparency,” said Susan King, dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and member of the search committee who nominated Curran to Folt.
The campaign is in its beginning stages as individual schools are in the process of outlining their funding priorities.
But Folt and Routh have already been traveling across the country to meet with donors. Private fundraising is more important now than ever due to steep budget cuts, Routh said. The University’s last capital campaign, Carolina First, brought in $2.38 billion from 1999 to 2007.
Folt is keenly aware of the pressure she’s facing, Routh said, but he’s confident in her ability to lead a successful campaign that is expected to be fully launched in a year.
“The most important thing is broadening the base of people we’re connected to,” he said. “That’s going to help us more than anything. That’s what we’re going to be focused on in the next year, so that we’re ready to go when the chancellor says she’s ready.”