Johnson Akinleye never conducted himself as if the adjective “interim” prefaced the title chancellor after he took over as chief executive of N.C. Central University last summer.
On Monday, UNC system leaders made that official, naming him the Durham institution’s 12th chancellor after stints as provost, acting chancellor and interim chancellor. He succeeds former Chancellor Debra Saunders-White, who died in November.
Confirmation came from the system Board of Governors, after a roughly 20-minute closed-door briefing from UNC President Margaret Spellings.
Making her second hiring of a chancellor for one of UNC’s 16 universities, Spellings called Akinleye a “no-nonsense leader and a strategic thinker.”
N.C. Central’s provost from 2014 until Saunders-White went on medical leave last August, Akinleye emerged as the top choice after a search process that initially looked at 30 applicants.
Searchers winnowed the field down to 12, interviewed four and finally sent three names to Spellings, NCCU trustees Chairman George Hamilton said.
“When we looked at the specs laid out by the search committee, and Johnson’s skills and attributes and leadership and track record, we had a near-perfect match,” Spellings said at a news conference after the board’s vote.
In truth, Akinleye – he pronounces his last name “Akan-lay-a,” the syllables blending when spoken quickly – had effectively taken charge on campus after Saunders-White’s battle with kidney cancer took a turn for the worse last spring.
He quickly reeled back one of Saunders-White’s signature initiatives, a plan to require most freshmen and sophomores to live on campus. That’s now down to a freshmen-only mandate, and will stay that way while N.C. Central officials figure out how to add dorm space.
That planning work’s an early priority for the administration because NCCU needs to “build upon the momentum we already have” on the enrollment front, Akinleye said.
“Because we are in a situation of opportunity, we want to find a way to create access for our students,” he said. “So we want to create a residential housing opportunity for the students knocking on our doors.”
A graduate of Alabama A&M University and Howard University, Akinleye arrived at N.C. Central after serving as associate vice chancellor for academic programs at UNC-Wilmington. The experience elsewhere in the UNC system was another plus, officials said.
“It’s great when you can find someone who’s grown up in the system, and in particular, [in the terminology of] the business world, in the operating unit,” said Hamilton. “We don’t have to go through an extended transition period. He knows us, knows where the strengths and opportunities are, and knows where we need to do some heavy lifting.”
The Board of Governors members present for Monday’s meeting – seven didn’t answer the roll call of those physically in Chapel Hill and those listening in by phone – all supported the choice. One, Bill Webb, said there was “no daylight between” what the search committee had said it wanted and “the qualities possessed by our new chancellor.”
Spellings said a national search for a chancellor normally takes about an academic year.
But early on, NCCU searchers signaled they wanted to have a permanent chancellor in place for the start of the 2017-18 academic year this August.
That “was really the driver,” and meeting the target took a search panel willing to put in the hard work to make it happen, Hamilton said.
“We did not cut any corners,” Hamilton said. “We just made sure we filled every day and every meeting with what our work was to do. And we got it done.”
Along with the dorm-space issue, Akinleye said N.C. Central needs to continue cultivating the relationships with the state’s community colleges. It already has joint-degree programs of various sorts with Vance-Granville Community College, Alamance Community College, Wake Tech and Durham Tech.
The university’s also developing its online-education program to serve “non-traditional” students, ones who aren’t necessarily arriving on campus in the fall after graduating high school in the spring. There, campus leaders are intent on “offering fully online degrees for our students along with the services they need,” Akinleye said.
Given that he’s already on campus, the appointment as permanent chancellor is effective immediately. Civic leaders in Durham said they think the selection will be well received in the community and among state officials.
“He’s going to make an excellent chancellor,” said state Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. “He seems to have the right vision for the university. He aspires for excellence and understands the unique character of NCCU as a historically black college or university. He’s a good man who can do an excellent job.”
Akinleye “can grow the institution like it’s never grown before,” added state Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, a N.C. Central alumnus.
UNC system spokesman Josh Ellis said Akinleye’s salary as chancellor will be $325,000.
That’s less than the $345,313 Saunders-White was getting in her last year as chancellor, but still puts him roughly in the middle of the pack pay-wise among the system’s 16 university chiefs. N.C. State University Chancellor Randy Woodson leads the group, according to state records getting $617,376 for fiscal 2016-17.