Leading with boldness

Using a scientific approach, Kevin M. Guskiewicz makes the tough calls required of a chancellor, always putting people first.

A collage of three photos of Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz talking in a chair in his office.
Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz is interviewed in his office at South Building November 4, 2019. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Just six weeks into his tenure as Carolina’s 12th chancellor, Kevin M. Guskiewicz faced a difficult decision.

A new and deadly virus threatened to spread rapidly through the campus when students returned from spring break. The veteran researcher gathered the facts, consulted the experts and campus colleagues and then quickly did what none of his predecessors had ever done in the University’s 227-year history: switched the nation’s oldest public university to remote-only instruction.

It was a bold move.

“I love bold action,” Guskiewicz said in a recent interview. “And I do think that we have been bold.”

On Oct. 11, Guskiewicz will take the public oath that will install him as chancellor, the job he has been doing for nearly 20 months, first on an interim basis, then as the permanent choice of the UNC System Board of Governors. The nearly two-year run-up to his formal installation as chancellor was another first for Carolina, though his selection certainly came as no surprise to those most familiar with him and his relentless drive. Since he arrived here as a faculty member in 1995, he has progressed to department chair, center director, senior associate dean and finally dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.

Along the way, Guskiewicz also attracted national attention, receiving the MacArthur Fellowship (known as the “genius award”) and being named one of 18 “game changers” by Time magazine for his influential concussion research. He is founder and co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Brain Injury Research Center as well as director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes. His research has influenced concussion protocols for the National Football League and the National College Athletic Association as well as the Return to Play laws now in effect for younger athletes in all 50 states.

“Long before concussion research was a topic of interest to the world, Dr. Guskiewicz was the first one in, doing amazing work. He is on our Mount Rushmore for former NFL players,” said Andre Collins, former NFL player and executive director of NFL Players Association’s Professional Athletes Foundation. He is the players union’s liaison with the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes.

“He is incredibly driven and intense about what he does, but it’s also clear that Kevin cares about people,” said Michael Crimmins, the chemistry professor who preceded Guskiewicz as senior associate dean for the natural sciences at the College of Arts & Sciences. In Guskiewicz’s previous administrative roles, “he always took a position of what’s best for the people he worked with. He’s always thinking about how does this affect individuals as well as how does it accomplish his big picture idea.”

Associate professor Jason Mihalik, now co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center that Guskiewicz founded, agreed with that assessment. “I would characterize him as personally driven and socially ambitious. That is his ambition — to make sure that collectively the institution thrives, and he is driven to succeed and accomplish that.”

An expert juggler

Guskiewicz grew up a smart, sports-loving kid in Latrobe, Pennsylvania — a hardscrabble town nestled in the western part of the state and hardcore Pittsburgh Steelers country. As a high school player, he spent more time injured than on the field, which sparked an interest in sports medicine. He earned a bachelor’s degree in athletic training from West Chester University and studied for a master’s degree in exercise physiology from the University of Pittsburgh while working as an athletic trainer for his beloved Steelers.

Seeing the unscientific guesswork behind decisions about whether to send players with concussions back into the game prompted him to study concussions as a doctoral student at the University of Virginia. He continued his research on concussions and balance at Carolina, where he worked with coaches and players to put science behind deciding fitness to play. He wasn’t trying to shut down football. He loved the game and wanted to make it safer.

As his reputation as a neuroscientist and concussion researcher grew, so did the number of students who wanted to work with him. Mihalik was one of these, impressed that Guskiewicz responded to an email he sent as an undergraduate in Montreal. When Mihalik came to Carolina as a graduate student in 2004, Guskiewicz was chair of the exercise and sport science department in the College of Arts & Sciences.

“He’s fantastic to work with. He is unmatched in his work ethic. I once joked that he doesn’t sleep, that he plugs himself into the wall at night,” Mihalik said. As an example, when he was up with his newborn, Mihalik would sometimes catch up on email, not expecting responses at those odd hours. “I would put the baby down and fire off some emails. And he replied a couple of times at 3:30 in the morning.”

The current exercise and sport science department chair, professor Darin Padua, described Guskiewicz as “an expert juggler.”

“He can keep multiple balls in the air but be able to give each his attention when it’s in his hand before he tosses it back up and grabs the next one.”

People person

Even as they describe his work ethic, his colleagues marvel at the way he remembers people’s names, maintains connections outside work and remains devoted to his family. The researcher who studies balance has achieved it in his life.

“He’s always been really involved with his kids’ lives. As a young faculty member, it was great for me to see someone so dedicated and maintaining balance in their life, which isn’t always an easy thing to do,” Padua said. He recalled Guskiewicz hurrying from work to coach Little League baseball or football. Former dean of the College of Arts & Sciences Karen Gil said they would often sit together in the stands at basketball games, supporting their own kids as well as cheering on each other’s children.

Kelly Hogan said she knew Guskiewicz would be a different type of leader when he held one of his first meetings as dean at his home. “He always welcomed us into his home, he and his wife. We used to stand around in their kitchen,” said the biology professor and associate dean of instructional innovation. “That speaks a lot to who he is because he could have held those events somewhere on campus, but he chose his home. Everybody’s welcome — kids, too.”

Hogan said Guskiewicz has been supportive of her as a woman leader and of fixed-term and teaching faculty. He listens and learns and respects consensus building. But what has impressed her most is Guskiewicz’s concern for students. She has worked closely with him on the Quality Enhancement Plan, important for accreditation, and the overhaul of the general college requirements for undergraduates. Both the QEP and the new IDEAs in Action curriculum are built on principles around access to experiential learning opportunities that Hogan and other faculty members have championed.

“He came in so strongly as a leader around this idea of being student-centered. He doesn’t just say it. He really means it,” Hogan said. “He has been at the forefront of thinking about how what we implement in a curriculum affects student success. It’s nice when messages like this come from the top down.”

One of his first acts as dean was A Road Map to Boldness, the College’s first strategic plan, developed with faculty input over an 18-month period. “Kevin had a vision to further elevate science research and teaching in the College,” said Gil, the previous dean of the College. “He extended his bold and inspiring vision to the entire College when he followed me as dean of Arts and Sciences.”

Nowhere was that concern for student success more evident than when — on the day he was named interim chancellor — Guskiewicz kept his appointment to co-present with Hogan at the UNC System’s Student Success Conference. “I use it as evidence of the way he is student-centered and student-success focused,” she said.

New job, new issues

The scope of his job broadened widely when Guskiewicz became chancellor. Taking over amid the controversy over the Confederate Monument Silent Sam, he found himself dealing with issues of history and race and, when protesters clashed with UNC Police, with campus safety. He quickly established commissions for both areas and conducted listening sessions with groups across campus. As a result, the Board of Trustees voted this summer to change some University policies and removed the names of four white supremacists from campus buildings.

Guskiewicz also revived and expanded the Tar Heel Bus Tour last fall, taking three buses filled with faculty members to see the farthest reaches of the state served by the University and to share the concerns of its citizens.

“I was awed by his genuine curiosity about the work of faculty across disciplines as he crisscrossed the state,” said bus tour participant Anita Brown-Graham, professor of public law and government at the School of Government. “Whether the topic was education, health, environment or economy, he wanted to know more — and not just in the public settings. On the bus, he was engaged in nonstop conversations with faculty.”

Guskiewicz devoted much time and effort to the University’s first strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good. The plan, which includes eight initiatives, “aims to turn the University’s vision and aspirational goals into readily understood, significant, implementable, measurable, strategic initiatives and opportunities.”

But the pandemic that arrived in the spring was not part of that strategic plan. In March, Guskiewicz made the difficult decision to switch to remote instruction for the rest of the semester. That meant that the Class of 2020, which included his son Nathan, had only a virtual celebration until they can safely gather on campus for a commencement ceremony.

Mapping the future

As hard as that decision was, Guskiewicz faced an even tougher one in the fall. He and his leadership team spent the spring and summer developing a plan, called Carolina Together: The Roadmap for Fall 2020, to bring students back to campus for the fall semester.

Over the summer, research labs reopened and some graduate and professional students returned to class with no COVID-19 outbreaks. With community standards and practices based on expert advice from the University’s own infectious disease research faculty, Carolina prepped for resuming on-campus instruction. The staff put up directional signs in classroom buildings, ordered masks and hand sanitizer and set aside two residence halls for quarantine and isolation, among other preparations.

Guskiewicz went on national television, on “60 Minutes,” to discuss the return to campus and the contingency plans, or offramps, that would determine what the University would do if an outbreak did occur.

Only a week into classes, the possibility of an offramp arose. The University announced clusters of infections at some residence halls and a fraternity, and the weekend brought even more cases, prompting a conference call of infectious disease experts and members of the leadership team.

“It was a Saturday morning. I had gotten back from my morning run. It’s mid-August and we’re [senior leaders] talking about a potential off-ramp that we might have to take. And we talked about a few different options,” Guskiewicz recalled. “And I said all along that we would make data-driven decisions.

“That pivot in August was the hardest decision I’ve made.”

Within a few days, most residential students had moved back home or off-campus, leaving Carolina’s classroom buildings and grassy quads abandoned.

Yet the University is still open, with its largest enrollment ever.

And Guskiewicz, after his stripped-down, physically distanced installation, will face the same decision for the third time — to instruct students in person or virtually — for the spring semester.

“These past six months, we’ve traveled quite a journey. We’ve learned from some things that didn’t work. So I want to look back on that road we’ve traveled but, more importantly, make sure people are focused on the road in front of us,” he said.

He doesn’t know what the decision will be yet, but he knows it will be data-driven and people-focused.

“I feel good knowing that we have incredibly talented and motivated, caring people who are here at Carolina committed to moving us forward into the future, as I like to say, with boldness,” he said. “I love bold action.”

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