After months of turmoil, interim chancellor wants to celebrate what’s good at UNC

Kevin Guskiewicz, attending his first meeting of the UNC Board of Trustees as the university’s interim chancellor, seemed determined Thursday to refocus attention away from recent controversies at the school and onto its academic and research successes.

He used his time on the meeting agenda to list his priorities, saying he wants the university to be “strategic, bold and student-focused.” He invited in football Coach Mack Brown, who stayed at the meeting just long enough to remind the board of Guskiewicz’s laudable neuroscience research on concussions.

Guskiewicz then invited an exercise physiologist he hired more than a decade ago to talk about groundbreaking work happening at UNC on the use of exercise to help breast cancer patients get back their strength after treatment.

Eight weeks into a job he has said he would like to be named to permanently, Guskiewicz told the board, “We’re going to accomplish a lot together.”

The university and the UNC system as a whole have been much in the news since the trustees’ last meeting, at the end of January. Carol Folt left her job as chancellor, having resigned with plans to stay until the end of the spring semester but getting pushed out early by the UNC Board of Governors. Among other things, the board was upset by Folt’s decision to remove the base of the Silent Sam Confederate memorial that had remained on campus after the statue itself had been toppled by protesters.

The president of the university system, Margaret Spellings, left March 1 after just three years on the job. UNC Healthcare CEO and School of Medicine Dean Dr. William Roper is serving as interim president.

Silent Sam continues to be a source of controversy on campus. Advisory committees of UNC faculty, students and members of the Board of Governors are considering what can — and should — be done with the monument. Advisory groups are not expected to offer a plan for the statue until at least late May.

When asked Thursday about last week’s meetings of the committees, Guskiewicz said, “We’re still in process right now and optimistic we’ll find the right path.”

Guskiewicz, who has said he would prefer the monument not be returned to campus, added that the decision on what will be done with Silent Sam is being led by the Board of Governors, and that UNC has developed a good relationship with board members who are working on the plan.

Guskiewicz already has had to weigh in on two Silent Sam-related incidents since moving into the interim chancellor’s spot. The first was after at least one member of the Heirs to the Confederacy group brought a handgun to campus during a protest on March 16. Campus police were aware of the weapon and asked the man to leave campus, which he did. Officers said they did not charge him with violating a law prohibiting guns on campus because it wasn’t clear that his presence on the right of way of a city street that runs through UNC was illegal.

The Heirs group is angry over the removal of Silent Sam, and has had regular confrontations with a group on campus that views the statue as a symbol of white supremacy and wants it gone.

The second incident was on Sunday, when vandals left racist language on UNC’s Unsung Founders Memorial and an art installation on campus.

Guskiewicz issued statements after both incidents. After the gun incident, he said he would put together a group of students, faculty and staff to look at campus safety issues, including concerns over the police department. He said Thursday he should have a list of the members of that committee within a couple of weeks.

After Sunday’s vandalism, Guskiewicz said such behavior wouldn’t be tolerated. Earlier this week, arrest warrants were issued for two unnamed suspects in the vandalism.

On Thursday, Guskiewicz added that both suspects have been banned from campus and will be charged with trespassing if they return.

Thursday’s Board of Trustees meeting was otherwise mundane, with the board taking action on a handful of items and gathering information on others. The board voted to make some changes to parking policies that include increases in parking rates and adding a $25-a-year charge for a weeknight parking permit for daytime employee commuters who don’t have a daytime permit.

The board chose to delay taking a vote on whether to approve a new campus master plan until the May meeting.

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.