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Notable moments from MSU presidential finalist Kevin Guskiewicz's tenure as UNC chancellor

November 20, 2023
<p>University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. Photo courtesy of UNC Health.</p>

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. Photo courtesy of UNC Health.

Kevin Guskiewicz, the sole candidate for the Michigan State University presidency, said he’s "weighing" leaving his current position as chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for the job at MSU.

Whether Guskiewicz will be the next president is still unclear. Board chair Rema Vassar and MSU's spokespeople have declined to comment on how the the board will be moving forward with the decision. 

Throughout Guskiewicz’s time at UNC, multiple controversies have put him at odds with the university’s politically conservative board of governors. 

He has been vocal about his disagreements, but figures on campus and beyond have criticized him for not doing more to intervene. 

Mishandling of an acclaimed Black faculty member’s application for tenure

Guskiewicz has been criticized for not intervening in UNC’s handling of a prominent Black journalist whose application for tenure was deadlocked by their board for months, according to reporting by NC Newsline

Nikole Hannah-Jones was hired in April 2021 as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the university's Hussman School of Journalism and Media. She quickly applied for a tenured position.

But despite being recommended for it by university officials, and despite most Knight Chair faculty positions across the country being tenured, the UNC board of trustees didn’t initially vote on her application. 

Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer prize years earlier for her work on the New York Times' "1619 Project," a long-form work detailing the history of slavery in America. The 1619 Project was heavily praised by many and received acclaim, but some conservative commentators critiqued its portrayal of America. Some historians also said it contained inaccuracies.

Walter Hussman, whose $25 million donation to UNC put his name on the journalism department, also expressed concerns to administrators about Hannah-Jones' prior work when her tenureship was being considered.

The board’s delay of the tenure vote sparked protests from students and faculty who claimed the reluctance was due to pressure from Hussman. Hussman denied those claims.

Three Black faculty members left UNC in response to Hannah-Jones' treatment.

With public pressure building and litigation imminent from Hannah-Jones, the board voted to approve her tenure in May, months after her application was submitted.

Hannah-Jones instead accepted a position as Knight Chair in Race and Reporting at Howard University, a historically Black institution.

"Instead of fighting to prove I belong at an institution that until 1955 prohibited Black Americans from attending, I am instead going to work in the legacy of a university not built by the enslaved but for those who once were," she said in a statement.

The same day she made her announcement, Guskiewicz released a statement saying he was disappointed Hannah-Jones would not be joining UNC faculty.

"While I regret she won’t be coming to Chapel Hill, the students, faculty and staff of Howard University will benefit from her knowledge and expertise," Guskiewicz wrote in the statement. "We wish her the best."

Hannah-Jones told ABC News that Guskiewicz, along with other UNC administrators, sent a bad message by not intervening in the board’s dealings.

"The Board of Trustees not voting was one thing," Hannah-Jones told ABC News. "But to also have the chancellor and the provost of the university fail to speak out publicly, fail to say that the Board of Trustees should’ve treated me like every other professor who came in under the Knight Chair, I think that sent the message to other faculty on campus that they would not have the protection and the support of the administration if it came down to a fight with political appointees.”

COVID-19 response

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At the start of the 2020-2021 academic year, about seven months after the first U.S. school shut down due to COVID-19 concerns, a significant portion of UNC’s students were on campus, attending in-person classes. 

Within the first week of classes, however, 177 students had been isolated after testing positive for COVID-19 and another 349 were in quarantine due to possible exposure, according to a New York Times report from Aug. 17, 2020.

According to the report, the university was offering an online option for students at the time, but residence halls were still at around 60% capacity. 

On Aug. 16, 2020, UNC’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, published a scathing editorial blaming the university’s administration and Board of Governors for mismanaging the situation. The editorial also called out the university for not following recommendations to implement online-only instruction for the first five weeks of classes made by the county health department.

"The Editorial Board recognizes that the decision to transition away from in-person classes is one that ultimately lies with the Board of Governors — not the administration," the editorial reads. "However, Guskiewicz, Provost Bob Blouin and the rest of the administration are far too eager to attribute blame to parties other than themselves … The chancellor of a public university with a multi-billion dollar endowment is hardly powerless — not now, not ever."

The day after this editorial was published, officials announced that the university would move entirely online.

Guskiewicz told WRAL, a local television station in Raleigh, North Carolina, that the university was initially prepared to handle COVID-19 on campus. 

"We had a good roadmap that we developed," Guskiewicz said. "When activities began to happen off campus and then bringing some of that back into the residence halls, that’s where we began to see the positive cases and we were surprised at the velocity and the magnitude of the spread."

The editorial also criticized the university for failing to disclose specific COVID-19 case numbers. It questioned the university’s defense that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, prevented the university from reporting case numbers.

FERPA is a federal law designed to protect access to personal educational records.

"According to guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education, schools may release information regarding COVID-19 as long as 'a student’s identity is not personally identifiable,'" the editorial reads.

Confederate statue on campus

A campus Confederate statue was toppled by protesters in 2018, according to reporting by NC Newsline

Upset with the statue’s removal, the North Carolina chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued the university and its board. Eventually, UNC settled the suit, agreeing to give the group the statue and $2.5 million for its continued upkeep.

At the time, Guskiewicz told upset UNC faculty that he and other administrators were not a part of the settlement discussions, instead pinning the deal on members of the governing board.

But it was later revealed that one of Guskiewicz’s vice-chancellors, Clayton Somers, was directly involved in crafting the controversial settlement.

That twist outraged some UNC faculty.

"It’s surprising that senior leadership, the chancellor, would maintain we had no involvement in it when it appears we did," Eric Muller, a member of UNC’s Faculty Executive Committee, said to NC Newsline in 2021.

Judge Allan Baddour ruled to void the $2.5 million settlement in February 2020, arguing the Sons of Confederate Veterans didn’t have standing in the case. The decision was celebrated by many UNC student groups, who had previously worked to reverse the settlement.

"Today’s court ruling leaves many questions to be answered regarding the ownership and disposition of the monument," Guskiewicz said in a statement released shortly after the decision. "However I stand behind and reaffirm what I have said for over two years: The monument does not belong on our campus."

Free tuition 

Following the Supreme Court’s June 29 decision to outlaw affirmative action in college admissions, UNC announced that it would offer free tuition to students whose families earn less than $80,000 annually. 

In the July 7 statement, Guskeiwicz wrote, "we want to make sure students know that financial constraints should not stand in the way of their dreams."

According to the statement, the university also hired outreach officers to spread the word of the policy in under-resourced communities, as well as to recruit students from across the state who would be eligible for the program. 

The university had long been at the forefront of the debate surrounding race-based college admissions. 

In 2014, the Virginia-based conservative group Students For Fair Admissions sued the university, arguing that the university’s consideration of race in admissions violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

In 2014, the group also sued Harvard, a private institution, for considering race in admissions. 

The group argued that despite the universities' goals of curbing racial discrimination in college admissions, white and Asian Americans were disadvantaged by the universities' admissions practices.

On Oct. 19, 2021, U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs ruled that UNC could continue to consider race as a factor in the admissions process. Biggs wrote that she used the U.S. Supreme Court’s University of Texas precedent, which ruled that universities could consider race in admissions in specific ways that would improve diversity.

A federal judge also upheld Harvard’s admissions practice in 2019.

However, on Jan. 24, 2023, the Supreme Court, which gained a 6-3 conservative majority during the Trump administration, agreed to hear challenges to the two decisions.

The Supreme Court’s eventual overturning of the previous decisions forced UNC to find other ways of achieving its goals of diversity. 

In the statement written to the UNC community, Guskeiwicz wrote, "Our University's commitment to access and affordability and supporting a culture of belonging for everyone does not change with last week's ruling."

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