Let’s grow our own university chancellors

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If the UNC Board of Governors meetings were broadcast, they would become the top-rated reality show on TV. There’s something for everyone — humor, pathos, conflict and, occasionally, a nugget of wisdom. Such was the case with the latest meeting.

While discussing a new chancellor at Western Carolina University, board member Tom Fetzer posed a question many have asked.

“We say that we are finest public university system in the country, Fetzer said. “Why aren’t we graduating people that can run these institutions? We don’t get candidates from North Carolina.”

It was once common practice to promote from within the institution or, at least from within the state. Not so today.

True, four of the six presidents of the UNC System came from North Carolina; one from within the system and one from academia. Bill Friday rose from leading the three-campus university to become founding president of the system in 1971. When he retired, Charlotte businessman Dick Spangler was selected. Upon his retirement, Molly Broad was recruited from California.

At Friday’s urging, Erskine Bowles was chosen when Broad retired, followed by Judge Tom Ross. Signaling an era of confrontation and unrest, Ross was fired and Margaret Spellings hired.

We have this “nothing good ever comes from Nazareth” prejudice against hiring from within. The further away a candidate is, it appears the better he or she is viewed. However, Dr. Ken Peacock, who had been dean of the business school at Appalachian State University, was selected to be chancellor in 2004.

Peacock already knew the state, the faculty, the university and the politics. His was an outstanding decade of leadership, as he was a visionary leader with unmatched experience. In similar manner, Robin Cummings, health director of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, was the perfect choice to return to his home area and take over as chancellor of Pembroke State University.

It is admittedly difficult for the president and the Board of Governors to fully understand and match the needs, problems, opportunities and dreams of the institution to the skill sets of candidates. Too often, the easiest path appears to be to hire a search firm to scour the country for the best fit. Their results are spotty, expensive, time-consuming and seldom favor candidates within our state.

Thank God our Board of Governors didn’t do that when Bill Friday retired. The BOG understood nobody was ever going to replace Friday; its members also understood there were new disciplines, structures and systems needed and Spangler filled those needs. The same was true with Bowles.

Using the premise that local people make better local decisions, we propose a new strategy. It begins by stating we want to hire from within, deputizing everyone, no matter their discipline or rank, to help identify people ready for new opportunities. Let us be equally clear that no one from our state will be criticized or penalized for seeking consideration. Only after we are satisfied that the ideal candidate isn’t already here do we consider employing a search firm.

This process might take a bit longer but has several advantages. It should motivate many already here, thus reducing the flight factor of talent thinking the only way to advance is to leave. It will likely enhance university stability, save money, produce results as good or better than we currently achieve and could reduce the number of searches we make.

Why not hire a North Carolinian?

Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina state treasurer and is creator/host of “N.C. Spin.” Contact him at www.ncspin.com.