The search for UNCA’s next chancellor has begun

VISION QUEST: UNC Asheville board of trustees interim Chair Roger Aiken, left, and Faculty Senate Chair Dee Eggers are among the 13 members on the UNCA chancellor search advisory committee. Photos courtesy of UNCA

Over the past decade, the position of UNC Asheville chancellor has been somewhat of a revolving door.

After Anne Ponder’s nine-year tenure ended in 2014, Mary Grant served for two years and Nancy Cable for four. During that time, Doug Orr, Joseph Urgo and now Kimberly van Noort have stepped in as interim directors for about a year apiece. The turnover has left UNCA in a state of uncertainty as another search for a new chancellor commences. Xpress spoke with faculty and students about the impact these frequent administrative shifts have on the campus and their expectations for the next chancellor.

Study hall

Cable announced her resignation as chancellor Oct. 12. Nine months later, on June 28, a 13-member search advisory committee was formed. According to Andy Wallace, director of media relations for the University of North Carolina System, the gap was largely due to an eight-month study of chancellor searches by the UNC Board of Governors Committee on Strategic Initiatives. Its research involved consulting experts across the U.S. and interviewing numerous chancellors, trustees, faculty and staff from the state’s 17 public institutions.

“That began in September 2022 and concluded with policy changes by the board in May 2023,” Wallace says. “The policy changes put the UNC System in line with other public university systems across the country.”

With the new procedures in place, UNC System President Peter Hans and UNCA board of trustees interim Chair Roger Aiken announced the formation of the search committees. In line with the new UNC policy, the committee is composed of up to 13 voting members, among them representatives of the trustees, faculty, staff, students and alumni. The policy also calls for a current or former chancellor of a UNC campus, the president and representatives of the UNC Board of Governors to be on the committee.

Dee Eggers, chair of the Environmental Studies Department and the Faculty Senate, is the lone faculty member on the search committee. The 2017 committee had 22 members, including five faculty members.

“In spring, I heard faculty express concern about a new chancellor being installed that we did not choose,” Eggers says. “That was the concern that I heard most often.”

Aiken, chair of the search advisory committee, says the panel will deliver an unranked list of three candidates by mid-October to the UNCA board of trustees. If the trustees approve the list, it is then sent to Hans.

“At that particular point, Peter will talk to or select or whatever he needs to do in order to make his choice,” Aiken says. “It’s his choice to pick the next chancellor of UNC Asheville, and then he presents his choice to the UNC Board of Governors for ratification.”

Nationwide trend 

That person will encounter numerous challenges from the start. Enrollment at the campus is down nearly 24%, from 3,600 students in fall 2019 to 2,914 in fall 2022. At the same time, due to various factors, including difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the average tenure of a college president has shrunk nationwide to 5.9 years, according to a recent survey by the American Council on Education. Those figures are down from 6.5 years in 2016 and 8.5 years in 2006.

“It’s a tough job. It’s a 24/7 job. [Before] you could take summers off, or summers would reduce stress. That’s not the case anymore,” Aiken says. “Ann Ponder was at UNCA for nine years. That’s a wonderful tenure. I hope we get that with our next chancellor but if we do, we’re bucking a nationwide trend.”

Aiken adds that it’s necessary to have a support system in place so that the next chancellor “does not have to be all things to all people.” He views that pressure relief as the shared responsibility of the board of trustees and the UNC System as a whole, and is encouraged by local community advocacy for the university and what he calls UNCA’s “tremendous faculty and staff.”

The search committee arranged listening sessions with staff, students, faculty and community members in mid-August to learn what attributes they wanted in the next chancellor. From those discussions, the committee will draft a leadership statement to spotlight the skills and qualities that the next chancellor needs to have. If all goes according to plan, that person will begin work in January, but Aiken notes that the process could take longer.

“The most important thing to me is not the timeline as much as it is finding the right person — that trumps everything,” he says. “If we don’t feel good by the end of the timeline, we’ll do whatever’s necessary in order to get the right person.”

Feeling stuck 

Outside of those listening sessions, direct involvement from those most affected by the new chancellor is minimal. Jonathan Brown, assistant professor of economics, considers it “an unfortunate choice to limit faculty voices in regards to the room where the choice will ultimately be made,” adding that “faculty input is being deprioritized across higher education.” With several staff and faculty positions still unfilled, he hopes the incoming chancellor is aggressive about hiring and prioritizes enrollment numbers despite challenges from a tight budget.

“From an academic perspective, fewer students means less diversity demographically, less diversity of thought, smaller classes — which can be great, but if the classes are too small, then you’re not getting that variety of perspectives in the classroom,” Brown says. “If we can get enrollment up, yes, it’ll help the budget. But it’ll also help us as professors teach better classes. You don’t want to be up there in a vacuum, talking to nine students who all already have the same preconceived notions on something.”

To those ends, Brown also would like to see UNCA admit more out-of-state students. In-state enrollment has hovered just below 90%, with spring 2023 enrollment figures reporting 88.6% of the student body as in-state. Though Brown loves that so many North Carolina residents attend UNCA, he believes it would benefit the campus to be more aggressive about recruiting students from different areas to attract different perspectives.

“I hope that a chancellor that comes in can balance that importance of serving the local community with also trying to make UNCA richer academically by pursuing a variety of students,” Brown says.

Even with these obstacles, Eggers says most faculty are “definitely happy to come to work every day and do a great job.” In her capacity as Faculty Senate chair, she’s heard varying degrees of concern about the recent chancellor turnover and, like Aiken, believes that the “very competent faculty and staff” have allowed the university to weather multiple administrations.

EDUCATIONAL EQUITY: UNCA senior Thomas Tillman hopes that the university’s next chancellor will work more closely with the campus’s minority students. Photo by Lauren Braswell

But as Brown notes, the “state of flux” can prove frustrating and has made it difficult to get things accomplished. While he feels that UNCA is very clear about its vision, which he says is communicated to new hires — especially in high-level administrative roles — he notes that everyone wants to realize that vision differently.

“When you’re constantly having people step in that want to make new changes, even if they’re all kind of in agreement with one another, it just slows the process down. No one can get used to a management style. No one can get used to a concrete plan to move the university forward,” Brown says. “So, I do think there’s an element of feeling stuck. And I do think the students pick up on that.”

Consistency is key 

Among them is Thomas Tillman, a senior English/creative writing major, who says that greater consistency at the chancellor position is imperative at a time when liberal arts institutions are under immense political scrutiny. As the president of the Black Student Association and chief of staff for the Student Government Association, he’s felt a lack of support for minority students from past administrations and hopes that the next chancellor will help these underserved undergraduates feel more welcome at UNCA.

“Funding is really important, but also events that are catered toward us and a campus that includes us and doesn’t just view us as obstacles to homogeneity — that would be really important,” Tillman says.

Tillman has been following the chancellor search closely but notes that information hasn’t been readily available for students. Sabrina Betz, a senior political science major, says she hasn’t heard much about the process but has been more focused on navigating the range of pandemic-induced hurdles that she feels have defined her UNCA days. And as a new set of students arrives on campus this fall, the effects of the global health crisis on young adults remains at the forefront of the faculty’s minds.

“There’s been a lot of research on this new crop of students nationwide. Their experience in high school was different, and because of the stress, they didn’t retain as much information on average as other students,” Eggers says. “That is a challenge, so we’re doing things to try to identify what they don’t know and how we can help them plug holes in their knowledge.”


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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3 thoughts on “The search for UNCA’s next chancellor has begun

  1. UNCA alum

    It’s disheartening to hear from UNCA senior Thomas Tillman that “as the president of the Black Student Association and chief of staff for the Student Government Association, he’s felt a lack of support for minority students from past administrations.”

    Is he not aware that at least three recent former student government presidents—Lauren Brasewell, Demon Thomas, and Isaiah Green- were African-Americans? They all worked closely with the chancellors in place during their terms of office.

    And is he not aware that in recent years, two campus buildings were renamed for prominent African-American in the community, Whitesides Hall and Delaney Hall, and that another campus building was named for pioneering African-African faculty members Dwight and Dolly Jenkins Mullen and Deborah and Charles James?

    Was he not present at the lecture by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which drew a huge crowd and generated much excitement? Is he not aware that Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. came to campus, to honor the members of the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality?

    Surely he knows that in the English Department, where he studies creative writing, there are two important African-American poets, Mildred Barya and Diamond Forde.

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