When Phil Dubois moved into the chancellor’s office at UNC Charlotte 14 years ago, his school was on the cusp of great things on campus and in Charlotte. Dubois, a strong and visionary leader, announced his retirement this week, and the school he’ll leave next summer is vastly different and demonstrably improved. It still, however, has some next steps to take.
UNC Charlotte was in a growth trajectory when Dubois took over in 2005, with enrollment rising and research dollars accumulating. That’s continued and flourished under his watch, despite headwinds Dubois couldn’t have predicted when he took the job. Those include a recession in 2008 that hit higher education budgets hard, plus an N.C. legislature that would turn Republican and pull the purse strings even tighter on the UNC system.
Despite those obstacles, Dubois helped transform the campus in extraordinary ways. He led the largest facility expansion in school history — more than $1.2 billion spent on construction that was both necessary and appealing. He also brought Division 1 football and all its trimmings to campus, giving students and alumni a new slice of traditional college life. In academics, UNC Charlotte added more than three dozen degree programs under Dubois. It built research capacity in forward-thinking areas such as data analytics and life sciences, and his fundraising prowess attracted the gift that created the Levine Scholars Program to lure some of the country’s brightest students to campus each year.
Equally as critical, Dubois has managed important relationships across the state, keeping his school away from controversies involving the increasingly conservative UNC Board of Governors. Unlike others in the UNC system, UNC Charlotte has not seemed to have a BOG target on its back. That victory shouldn’t be underestimated.
Despite all those right moves, UNCC still sits on the cusp of something greater. It’s not yet a Research I facility, a classification that the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education uses to indicate universities engaging in the highest levels of research. UNCC’s academic reputation also is largely the same, with student profiles and national rankings improving incrementally, if at all. For that to change, the school needs more star faculty, and that will take money state lawmakers aren’t inclined to give right now. Still, Dubois will leave UNC Charlotte as close to the next level as it ever has been.
The same can be said of the school’s relationship with Charlotte. Among Dubois’ biggest accomplishments was working with city officials to get the LYNX Blue Line to connect uptown to the UNCC campus. That light rail extension promises to not only change the university, but how the region perceives public transportation possibilities.
The university has missed an opportunity, however, to offer a critical voice in shaping development just outside campus borders. Community leaders and activists have been frustrated that the school under Dubois has been passive — and sometimes downright silent — about development proposals that ignored adopted city plans and the vision many had for the University area. Also, Charlotte remains one of the largest cities in the country without an accredited four-year medical school or law school, and some in Charlotte wish Dubois had led the way for his school to be the home for one or both.
Perhaps the chancellor, a keen student of the political landscape, recognized the time wasn’t right for either at UNCC. There’s still growth to come at his school — both on campus and in its relationship with the city. Dubois will leave UNC Charlotte well positioned for both.