Orange County

Med school cancer researcher elected UNC-CH faculty chairwoman

For the second time running, professors at UNC-Chapel Hill have elected a colleague from its School of Medicine to chair the university’s version of a faculty senate.

Cancer researcher Leslie Parise, department chairwoman of biochemistry and biophysics in the medical school, beat out the chairman of UNC’s History Department, Lloyd Kramer, for the three-year term at the head of the Faculty Council.

She will replace the council’s incumbent chairman, Bruce Cairns, on July 1. Cairns, director of the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center, is also a professor in the School of Medicine.

Parise told the council she’s “very humbled and honored” by the election’s result and hopes to “live up to expectations.”

Turnout for the faculty-wide election was 50.8 percent, the second-highest showing for such balloting since the late 1990, said archeology professor Vin Steponaitis, the faculty secretary. The highest turnout came in 2014, when Cairns beat out sociology professor Andy Perrin for the council chairmanship.

Officials didn’t immediately post candidate-by-candidate vote totals for the Parise-Kramer race, which seemed a study in contrasts when the candidates made a joint appearance in front of the council in March.

Kramer promised to be a vocal defender of the liberal arts, “the core academic values of tolerance and openness to people all points of views and backgrounds, and a defender of the “academic rigor of of the university” against pressures from politicians and sports boosters.

Parise, meanwhile, signaled that she’d likely try to act as the sort of conciliator Cairns has been during his term as chairman.

She acknowledged that she’d considered leaving UNC in the mid-2000s to pursue department-chair openings at universities elsewhere in the country.

“Sometimes it takes stepping away from UNC to realize what we have,” she said in March. “You realize other universities have a lot of problems and there’s a lot of things that UNC does right.”

She also acknowledged the university likely faces “a few additional repercussions” from the so-called “paper classes” academic fraud, a comment that alluded to the ongoing NCAA investigation of phony classes that allowed athletes and other students to boost their grades.

But the university faces “equally challenging times” ahead, with not only professors in the liberal arts facing public attacks on their disciplines but researchers in the sciences “concerned with the apparent devaluation” of their work, she said.

The country’s new president, Donald Trump, has proposed deep cuts to research budgets, particularly for such grant-supplying federal organizations as the National Institutes of Health.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, who attends most council meetings, said she’s “looking forward to working with” Parise and thinks North Carolina’s Congressional delegation is in the university’s corner when it comes to research funding.

She singled out U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who traveled to Chapel Hill earlier in the week to attend the opening of a university-sponsored substance-abuse treatment center and speak to people attending a National Science Foundation grant workshop.

“We have a delegation that will help us at least to be able to explain the importance of things,” Folt said. “People are recognizing the amazing value of what everybody does here. I think we’ve got a chance to have our voice heard.”

As for the council election, faculty in the School of Medicine turned out at lower rates than were common in many other academic units.

But the school’s sheer size — it’s home to 1,546 of this year’s 3,643 eligible voters — means even this year’s 46 percent turnout there had the potential to go a long way toward determining the outcome.

In chairing its biochemistry department, Parise heads one of the med school’s highest-profile units. Her departmental colleagues include one of the 2015 winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Aziz Sancar.

Voting rights in council elections go to tenured and tenure-track professors, librarians who hold faculty appointments, and “fixed term,” non-tenure-track faculty who have the equivalent of a three-year contract.

UNC records indicate that turnout for faculty elections for much of the 2000s hovered in the 20 percent range. It bottomed out at 14 percent in 2007.

The upswing in turnout more or less coincided with the advent of the paper classes scandal, which among other things ended the UNC career of former Faculty Council Chairwoman Jan Boxill. She won the 2011 election while holding a lecturer’s post in the Philosophy Department.

The Faculty Council’s equivalent at Duke University, the Academic Council, is also changing leaders this summer, with public policy professor Don Taylor taking over as chairman from engineering professor Nan Jokerst. Taylor prevailed over Duke Divinity School professor Ellen Davis in that election.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg