Durham County

With decision due this summer, NCCU chancellor search is down to its final three

UNC system President Margaret Spellings, center, faces a decision soon on who will become N.C. Central University’s 12th chancellor.
UNC system President Margaret Spellings, center, faces a decision soon on who will become N.C. Central University’s 12th chancellor. UNC-Chapel Hill

N.C. Central University’s chancellor search appears to have reached the home stretch, with UNC system officials confirming that campus trustees have given system President Margaret Spellings the names of three finalists they think can serve as the institution’s 12th chief executive.

Spellings is now “in the process of reviewing these finalists and deciding on a final candidate to recommend to the Board of Governors for election,” system spokesman Josh Ellis said.

System procedure allows Spellings to interview the candidates herself, and says she has to consult the board’s personnel committee while negotiating an employment contract with the ultimate choice. The full board has to ratify the selection. Its next scheduled meeting is on July 14, at UNC-Asheville.

NCCU and system officials have indicated they’d like to decide the matter in July, so the new chancellor can begin work the following month, in time for the start of the fall semester.

The impending choice is Spellings’ second chance to hire a chancellor for one of UNC’s 17 institutions since becoming its president in 2016. Her first led to the hiring of Cecil Staton, a religion professor and former Georgia state senator, to head the administration of East Carolina University.

In January, Spellings told N.C. Central’s search committee she’s looking for “someone who understands that NCCU has more upside potential than any other campus in the UNC system and is driven to take [it] to the next level.”

Whoever winds up getting the nod will succeed former Chancellor Debra Saunders-White, whose tenure was cut short late last November by her death from kidney cancer. She’d held the job for three years.

Saunders-White was on medical leave throughout the fall semester of 2016. NCCU’s provost, Johnson Akinleye, became acting and interim chancellor after she stepped aside.

Despite the interim tag, Akinleye has been a take-charge executive.

He scaled back one of of Saunders-White’s signature initiatives, a campus residency requirement for freshmen and most sophomores, on the grounds that Central doesn’t have the dorm space to house all the students who’d need beds. That move has segued into a consultants’ study on the financial feasibility of adding dorms, possibly through some sort of public-private partnership.

Akinleye has sought to improve the university’s media outreach and to prod city officials about the security situation around campus. Recent months have also seen the unexpected departures of a student-affairs vice chancellor and campus police chief, both hired under Saunders-White.

Because the search process is unfolding behind closed doors, it’s not known who the finalists are or whether Akinleye is among them.

But a publication that tracks the country’s historically black colleges and univerities, Diverse, late last month claimed the departing president of Alabama’s Tuskegee University, Brian Johnson, interviewed for the NCCU job and is perhaps among the finalists.

It also claimed Johnson’s interest in the Central post may have sparked a decision by Tuskegee’s trustees to deny him a contract extension, essentially firing him after just three years on the job. Tuskegee officials confirmed on Thursday that Johnson is out as of June 30, but said nothing about trustees’ motives for making the change.

However, they did point out that Johnson, a 43-year-old Durham native who grew up in the since-demolished Few Gardens public housing complex, had been on just an “annual” contract with their school.

Founded by Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee is generally regarded as a more prestigious school than NCCU. It ranks 24th on the U.S. News & World Report listing of Southern regional universities. N.C. Central places 72nd on that list, which from the UNC system also includes Appalachian State University (9th), UNC-Wilmington (16th) and Western Carolina University (37th).

Other reports indicate that Johnson’s tenure at Tuskegee was hardly turbulence-free.

He inherited accreditation problems that mushroomed in June 2015 into a decision by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges to put Tuskegee on “warning” status. The organization reiterated that ruling last summer, and at the same time denied Tuskegee permission to launch two new master’s degree programs. It said Tuskegee officials “did not provide an acceptable plan” for the proposed online degrees, or make the case that they could run them effectively.

Beyond the accreditation issue, Johnson faced criticism from alumni and student groups, of the sort that for a time last summer surrounded Appalachian State Chancellor Sheri Everts. An online petition that’d called for Johnson’s removal blamed him for the departure of several deans and faculty members, and faulted his handling of town-gown relations.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg