Lee H. Roberts knows how important higher education is to the people of North Carolina, which is why he is taking his new role as interim chancellor of the state’s flagship university very seriously.
“I care an awful lot about this state and its future. I’m honored to be in this role, and I’m going to work as hard as I can to help Carolina fulfill its destiny, which could not be more crucial for our state,” Roberts said.
Roberts comes to Carolina from a career in finance. He is the founder and managing partner of SharpVue Capital, a Raleigh-based private investment firm. But he’s also worked in state government, served on the UNC System Board of Governors and State Board of the N.C. Community College System and raised a family in Raleigh.
In 2014, Roberts became state budget director for Gov. Pat McCrory. He regards their most important achievement to be the $2 billion Connect N.C. Bond initiative, mostly to support higher education. Later, as chair of the BOG budget committee, he led the adoption of a performance funding model to align campus budgets with strategic objectives. For the last five years, he taught budgeting at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
“I’m not an academic. I’m not here to try to tell academics how to do their jobs,” Roberts said. “I think the best thing I can do, given my background, is make sure that we’ve got a world-class organization to support this world-class faculty that we have.”
Roberts also wants Tar Heels to know that family is important to him. He is husband to longtime financial journalist Liza Roberts, the founder of Walter, a Triangle arts and culture magazine, and author of a book on North Carolina visual arts called “The Art of the State.” They are parents to three college-age children — a recent graduate, a college student and a high school senior — and have a nephew at Carolina.
Roberts has been influenced by a family tradition of public service. His maternal grandparents, Hale and Lindy Boggs, represented New Orleans in Congress for a total of 50 years. His parents, Steve and Cokie Roberts, were both well-respected journalists. Cokie Roberts delivered the May 2016 commencement address at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
In a recent interview with The Well, Roberts shared his thoughts about his new role.
What has surprised you the most as you’ve visited with people on campus?
I’m trying to meet as many people as I can, hear what’s on their minds. And I look forward to continuing to do that. What comes through over and over and over again is just the deep love that the people who work here have for this institution. That’s very hard to build, it’s very hard to replicate, and we have to make sure we preserve that.
What motivated you to serve as interim chancellor?
We don’t have a more important institution in this state, and so everyone who cares about this state and its future has to care about what happens here on this campus. Academia is a form of public service. I can’t think of a higher public calling than helping train the next generation of leaders. And that’s what is happening every day here on this campus.
Talk about the importance of higher education to North Carolina.
This state has made and continues to make a significant commitment to higher education. Most years we spend a greater percentage of our tax revenue on higher education than any other state in the country, No. 1 out of 50. There’s been strong bipartisan support for higher education, no matter who’s governor, no matter who controls the House and the Senate in Raleigh. And I expect that to continue.
How do you see the University continuing to grow and evolve in its next chapter?
Universities aren’t known for changing rapidly, and that’s a good thing. The workforce and the economy change much more rapidly than universities do, and so the challenge going forward is going to be how do we remain as relevant as possible? How do we address the changing needs of the state and of the country while at the same time remaining true to the values and principles that have served us so well over the last 230 years?
What have you learned from talking to students?
It’s not the easiest time to be a college student. A lot of psychological and mental health challenges were created by the pandemic in addition to high levels of anxiety and stress among this generation before the pandemic. It just reinforces the importance of everything that we’re doing in the context of student health and student wellness. We’re doing a lot of work in that area, and we’ll continue to do more.
Tell us how your family influenced your understanding of public service.
When my grandmother was a serving member of Congress, she was on the phone all the time, helping people, trying to figure out what had happened to someone’s Social Security check or someone who had had a legal problem or somebody who needed help with the Veterans Administration. It taught me at a young age that what politicians do is they help people. My parents believed that journalism was a form of public service. I believe that you’re serving the public good by serving the First Amendment and the public’s right to know.
As a Duke graduate, who will you be rooting for as Carolina’s interim chancellor?
There’s one thing I have to say about that. And that one thing is “Go Heels.”