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Next UNC chancellor reflects on new role, is ready to go 'big'

CHAPEL HILL Saturday was another whirl of activity for Carol Folt, UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor-elect, who made the rounds at a science expo, an alumni association meeting, dinner with campus leaders and the spring football game.

She spent the morning with Chancellor Holden Thorp, who seemed to enjoy the role of tour guide. Leading Folt and her husband, David Peart, into the chancellor’s digs in the historic South Building shortly after 9 a.m., he said, “So, this is your office.”

Asked to describe Friday, her first day on campus, on a scale from one to ten, Folt said, “20.”

The future chancellor heads back to Dartmouth College this week, where she is interim president. She starts the job in Chapel Hill July 1.

In an interview with The News & Observer on Saturday, Folt shared her views on her new role and her leadership style.

Private to public: After three decades at a private college in the Ivy League, Folt returns to her roots at a big public university. She was educated at UC-Santa Barbara, UC-Davis and Michigan State, and having grown up in Akron, Ohio, she was oriented to the Big Ten schools, dominated by large public campuses. “These were the places that meant something … they’ve always felt to me to be the genesis of so many exciting ideas and really important lives. I think I found my way to Dartmouth and had an amazing set of opportunities. You know, it’s just a wonderful, loving community. But I’ve wanted to go back to the bustle of the big public.”

Problem solving 101: This week, Folt has been described as a fixer, someone who helped deal with a $100 million budget shortfall at Dartmouth and headed a strategic planning effort at the same time. What is her administrative philosophy? “I’m a team builder. I do really feel that problems are solved when you bring people together to talk about them. And a lot of that goes back to the roots of being an educator. You don’t teach students by just telling them things, you teach them by engaging them in conversation, and every time you do that you learn something. ... I like to work on problems. We are here for that job. And so, even when they’re difficult and personally wrenching, that is one of the real privileges that we have – is that people are looking to us to really put (forth) a thoughtful set of answers. They may not always agree, but if people believe you are doing your best, you’re genuinely trying to get to that and you have a solution that you can back up with real reasoning, you’re providing a service.”

On sports: Folt grew up a Big Ten fan and has been a lifelong swimmer. Dartmouth doesn’t have the major revenue or public attention that UNC generates from its athletic teams, but it does have 34 Division I sports. She is the Ivy League representative on the NCAA Division I Board of Directors. When asked about the sports she loves, she happened to mention the biggies at UNC-CH. “I love basketball. I love football. I fell in love with women’s soccer in that first World Cup and Olympics, and so I have been a fan of North Carolina women’s soccer forever. ... I can get pretty excited about a game.”

On fundraising: Increasingly, university presidents’ jobs are to bring in corporate and alumni donations. UNC-CH is expected to launch a multiyear fundraising campaign, but Folt said she doesn’t view donor cultivation as a chore. “I look at these often as educational, learning moments. You’re having conversations, and it is very helpful when you go back and talk with the faculty and the staff to be able to say, ‘Look, this is how we’re being viewed from outside. What is our answer back?’ So I’ve always found these to be extremely stimulating dialogues.”

About politics: It’s safe to say that Folt hasn’t had much exposure to lobbying lawmakers at the private Dartmouth. That’s about to change, as the legislature and new governor in North Carolina are asking questions and scrutinizing education spending. She said she would work alongside the university boards and UNC system president Tom Ross. “I hope to help him as we try to describe why we just feel so passionately that this thing that we do is for the future of the state. So I think that’s something that will certainly be part of my learning curve, but I’m excited about it.”

On moving beyond scandal: Folt doesn’t believe the athletics and academic fraud scandals have sullied UNC-CH. She said she interacts with people in higher education across the country and hasn’t heard them talk about a decline in the university’s reputation. “It’s viewed very, very positively in the world. It is thought to be one of the great places. And though you live in a place where you see the issues of immediate consequence in the moment, none of that has tarnished the institution considered one of the great universities in the world.”

Stancill: 919-491-8213
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