Paul Hardin — a good man who made UNC better

Paul Hardin, who was a former UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor, died last week.
Paul Hardin, who was a former UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor, died last week. News & Observer file photo

When Paul Hardin slipped away last week, North Carolina lost a brilliant and fine man, a UNC chancellor whose leadership was endearing, its lessons enduring.

“This may be audacious, but here’s an idea,” I heard him say so often as a way to prepare us to hear how he might see the future differently. The good fortune of my work and home town gave me much time with Paul and a friendship that grew. He and I were pulled together in work when my company owned the school’s sports network.

It was the good fortune of us all to learn from him. Among the leaders I have known, none was more doggedin defense of the values he sought to protect. He was clear-eyed and courageous in facing down those who threatened those values.

It was likely the example of his Methodist minister father (also a bishop) that inculcated his habit to find noble qualities among many where the rest of us could not. An extroverted and joyful soul, he loved much about politics and once ran for the town council in Durham.

It is little-known that he served in the CIA, or that his excellent golf game honed on the Duke team (his alma mater) qualified him for the British Open at a time when he was in Scotland. A great storyteller, Paul loved to recall those days and so many more.

He was a brilliant student who finished first in his class at Duke, where he also obtained his law degree. He would have to call on all of that as a university leader. It’s a job with high prestige buffeted daily by high winds of disparate owners and bosses and the thunder of their loudest voices. Paul would frequently recall the story attributed to Lincoln about the politician who was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail: “Except for the honor of the public experience, I would have preferred to walk.”

Most every university is beset with the challenge of balancing the conflicting goals of big-time sports and the university’s academic mission. As president of Southern Methodist University, Paul Hardin heard of a minor malfeasance by the football coach that led him to learn of cash payments to players.

Paul was not a Pollyanna. He had a good political radar but never let it overpower his gyroscope. Knowing that he was in Dallas, where many see football as the reason to have a university, he nonetheless reported it to the NCAA and told his trustees that he was going to clean it up, knowing that he would face criticism.

His board members fired him. The school ultimately was given the NCAA’s only four-year “death penalty.”

Paul later said that it “perked up” his career. It was that experience, his exhibition of putting his values first, he said, that got him the job heading UNC in Chapel Hill 13 years later.

Unflinching in his support of the Knight Commission on College Athletics’ position that a school was more important than any coach, he never swerved in his commitment to administrative control of athletics and transparency in its dealings. He was a great fan of basketball and UNC’s iconic Dean Smith. Yet, when the head coach’s Nike contract came up for renewal on Paul’s watch, the chancellor insisted that it be made public.

(Ironically, while he was demanding the coach’s contractual transparency, he also was being criticized in cartoons in The News & Observer for allowing Dean to make so much money while he was away playing golf. In some things, you just can’t win.)

He also faced issues of protest and social unrest. He was caught in the jaws of irreconcilably-conflicting forces when supporters of the Black Cultural Center wanted it expanded into its own, freestanding building, something others opposed. The chancellor was initially opposed, as an advocate for more integration. He saw it as a contributor to separatism.

The faceoff between conservatives and growing campus protests became overwhelming. Hardin agreed to build the center, which was done in the subsequent administration. Yet, he had paid a price for it in criticism from all sides.

Paul was a pioneer in fundraising, creating the university’s first major fund campaign that was first announced as one for $200 million to celebrate the UNC Bicentennial. That was then raised to $300 million and ultimately reported $412 million in gifts.

Paul showed them the way. The school now channels that Hardin audacity, embarking now on its second multi-billion-dollar campaign.

He loved being the “Bicentennial Chancellor,” with its many commemorations, including an anniversary speech in Kenan Stadium by President Bill Clinton.

Paul Hardin loved life, one well-lived until the ravages of ALS took him away. He was still able to find good in all things and laughter with good friends until the end. Paul could lament the awful examples and roiling consequences of today’s political leadership, even as he might find something good in each of those who are, at least, he might say, willing to lead. The more we ponder that world view, that life, the closer we come to our own better angels.

Our community and our state lost a good man. A good, good man.

Jim Heavner is a Chapel Hill businessman, president of VilCOM, LLC.