During the spring semester’s first week of classes, The Well sat down with Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz for an update on the University’s strategic plan, the new School of Data Science and Society, Carolina’s partnership with the Town of Chapel Hill and more. After three years as Carolina’s 12th chancellor, Guskiewicz says he sees more clearly than ever how this University makes a difference in people’s lives. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The University recently wrapped up a historic fundraising campaign, bringing in $5 billion for scholarships, faculty salaries, new buildings and much more. What’s next for the Carolina development team?
We had an incredible campaign, far surpassing our goal of $4.25 billion. That took a remarkable effort by our development team, led by David Routh. We have a new vice chancellor for development, Michael Andreasen, starting this week.
A few months ago, we put out a call for proposals for what we’re calling our Next Grand Challenge Initiatives, which are sometimes called moonshot projects. Faculty and staff submitted 33 proposals. A team is helping us analyze them to see how closely they align with Carolina Next, the University’s strategic plan. I want to stay true to that plan as we bridge this past campaign with the next one.
Three themes emerged. One is around 21st century education, whether that’s building out new experiential education opportunities for undergraduates or providing new research opportunities and ways to mentor graduate students. The second theme is around health and wellness. This University brings in $1.2 billion a year in research, and over half of that involves the health sciences and medical school teams solving big challenges in health and wellness, including initiatives around mental health for our students. The third category is around career development — for our graduating students so they can go solve the next grand challenges for the world, and this focus also includes career development for our faculty and staff.
The goal is to develop these proposals further and to align them with donors in these areas. These are collaborative projects. Each one will have multiple units working together toward making real impact in the world.
Late last year, coaching icon Karen Shelton announced her retirement. What has Shelton meant to Carolina and the sport of field hockey?
She’s amazing. Karen is not only a legendary coach here at Carolina, but she’s a lifelong mentor for our student-athletes, and she will certainly be missed. I can’t imagine that she won’t stay connected to the program. I certainly hope she does! She has put field hockey on the map, not just for those of us here in Chapel Hill but for people around the country. It’s great to see her go out having won another national championship.
In late October, Solicitor General Ryan Park represented Carolina arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court that diversity on campus is essential for educating American citizens. What are you doing to prepare for the decision?
I’m proud of our holistic admissions process, and I’m proud of how we defended that process. I see every day the value that diversity brings for our students. Those different lived experiences in the classroom bring the curriculum to life. Diversity best prepares our students to participate in a thriving democracy. We must make certain that we can still have a diverse student body regardless of the outcome of that case. [Vice Provost for Enrollment] Rachelle Feldman and I talk about it weekly. She and others are looking at our options to continue our efforts to pursue a diverse student body.
There is much excitement for the new School of Data Science and Society. What can we look forward to this semester?
There’s a lot of activity right now. Dean Stan Ahalt and others are aggressively building the leadership team and recruiting faculty — new faculty who will have full time appointments in the school but also existing faculty from other units around campus who will have joint appointments. We’re working to get more funding from the North Carolina General Assembly, and we’re nearing an agreement on a $7.5 million gift for the school.
What are you doing to promote and protect free speech at Carolina?
Any institution that receives federal funds is obligated to notify their community once a year about First Amendment rights. We send a campus email every year on the subject, usually by the third week of August. But we can do better than that. We have scholars on this campus who are First Amendment experts. We have the Program for Public Discourse. We’re doing more around this space than a lot of our peer institutions.
I want people to be engaged around this topic. After the Board of Trustees passed a resolution last July affirming both freedom of speech and institutional neutrality, I began planning a working group that will be a source for advice, education and resources on academic freedom and free expression. It’s a diverse group of mostly faculty and staff, with a few students. We’ll have a website with information, activities and seminars that we’re holding around the topic so we can have meaningful conversations. I’m going to charge that group soon.
The Board of Trustees approved Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good three years ago this month. Are there any specific initiatives you’re currently focusing on?
I’m really pleased with where we are with Carolina Next. Not only did it help us bring an incredibly successful campaign to a close, but it has been a road map for the campus to rally around a set of priorities and values that will ensure that we are the leading global public research university in the nation.
We’ve said from the beginning that Carolina Next would be an evergreen plan that would be evaluated every six months or so and adjusted as needed. This year we’re focusing on a few areas that make the most sense given the challenges that society faces today.
One of them is around Initiative Three: Enable Career Development. We’ve heard over and over about the challenges that higher education is having with the workforce shortage, how public universities are losing top talent to private industry. We want to be sure that our faculty and staff see opportunities for upward mobility within this organization. So, there’s a real emphasis on that one right now. But it’s also about enabling career development for our students — about preparing our students for leadership opportunities and more civic engagement. You’re seeing more of that in the curriculum.
The second is around Carolina as a research and innovation powerhouse, which combines the fourth initiative, Discover, and the sixth, Serve to Benefit Society. How do we continue translating research and teaching into societal benefits?
The third focuses on Initiative Five: Promote Democracy. That shows up in the 21st century education theme that I mentioned earlier for the Next Grand Challenge Initiatives. I’m challenging each school to illustrate the ways in which they are having conversations around promoting democracy and ensuring that their students are thinking critically about these issues.
We have not said that the other initiatives — Build Our Community Together, Globalize, Strengthen Student Success and Optimize Operations — are not important. They’re critically important. But they weave into the others we’re focusing on in the near term.
You’ve been collaborating with the Town of Chapel Hill on some exciting projects — downtown beautification initiatives, an innovation hub and plans for a downtown innovation district. Where do things stand?
Partnership between the University and downtown Chapel Hill has never been stronger. I believe that this innovation corridor that’s being built out, starting with the renovated office building at 137 East Franklin St. [which extends to 136 East Rosemary St.], will be really special. Innovate Carolina will soon move into that space. We’re looking at ways to occupy more of that building now, possibly adding some of our undergraduate entrepreneurship activity. We’re also working on what will go into the Porthole Alley redesign across the street. As technology companies open offices in Chapel Hill, which departments and academic programs do we want there in order to have more proximity to the activity in town? The closer we are, where they can walk across the street and grab a coffee, the more of an incubator the area becomes.
You’ve been in this job for several years now. Has your thinking changed about the role of this University? If so, how?
Before I became dean of the College and then chancellor, I was chair of the College’s Exercise and Sport Science department. I helped build an incredible team of researchers. We provided data and made recommendations that led to policy changes. I saw in my own little world how we were making a difference in the world, improving safety, supporting athletes and saving lives. And, of course, that work continues in the Matthew Gfeller Center, the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes and other centers and labs.
Since I’ve become chancellor, my lens has broadened. I could give you dozens of examples of how Carolina is producing leading research that is making a difference in people’s lives. There’s the work we do in infectious disease, which is saving lives here in the States and in countries that don’t have the resources that we have. There’s the work we’re doing to solve issues around clean air and clean water, around democracy, in battling cancer. There’s READDI, which is developing broad-spectrum antiviral drugs that will be shelf-ready when that next virus shows up so that we can prevent another pandemic. The School of Government has a new initiative to help the finance leaders from small county governments — rural communities — write grants to FEMA when they need emergency aid.
I see every day the ways in which we’re leading and preparing the next generation of scientists, educators, city managers and others who are going to make sure that the society is healthy and democracy is healthy.
Academia does not exist apart from society. We are absolutely embedded in society, and Carolina — the most public of the public universities — is improving society. As a faculty member, I saw that in my department. I see it more than ever as chancellor.