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UNC-Chapel Hill announces new provost, amid concerns of closed-door dealings

South Building and the Old Well, UNC Chapel Hill
Dave DeWitt
South Building and the Old Well, UNC Chapel Hill

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees has approved a new provost for the university in a process that has been marred with rumors that university trustees improperly interfered in the search.

The new provost is Chris Clemens, who currently serves as the senior associate dean for research and innovation in the UNC-Chapel Hill College of Arts & Sciences. Clemens will take over the role vacated by Bob Blouin in February. The provost is the chief academic officer of the university.

UNC Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman raised accusations in an op-ed in the Daily Tar Heel published last week that members of the Board of Trustees and UNC System administrators had pressured Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz to select a particular candidate over a candidate preferred by the search committee. The university’s provost search committee was composed primarily of UNC-Chapel Hill faculty.

Chapman did not name the two finalists in her article, but indicated trustees and the UNC System were attempting to influence Guskiewicz to recommend a particular internal candidate over an outside candidate.

The standard procedure for a provost appointment is that the university Board of Trustees votes on whether to approve a recommendation by the chancellor based on the search committee’s work.

In a written statement provided to WUNC, Chapman said she stands by her comments published in The Daily Tarheel.

"I hold Professor Clemens in great esteem and believe he will serve the University well. It is nonetheless true that he has been the pick of the BOT since the search for a new provost began last summer. Some wonder why we even go through the motions of a 'national search' if decisions are pre-ordained," says Chapman. "The UNC-CH Board of Trustees, UNC’s General Administration, and the Board of Governors have regularly interfered in campus affairs which fuels distrust within the campus community."

The final decision to appoint Clemens comes amid a series of controversies at UNC-Chapel Hill and within the UNC System regarding shared governance between faculty, administrators, trustees and the UNC System Board of Governors.

UNC-Chapel Hill faculty have criticized board overreach in issues regarding:

  • the lawsuit settlement UNC System Board of Governors members brokered with the Sons of Confederate Veterans over UNC-Chapel Hill’s Silent Sam Confederate monument
  • a case involving Chris Clemens where the UNC System Board of Governors initiated a new program at UNC-Chapel Hill that faculty criticized for its lack of transparency and conservative leanings
  • Clemens has served in various administrative roles at UNC-Chapel Hill, including as the senior associate dean for natural sciences and chair of the department of physics and astronomy.

    Clemens helped to establish The Program in Civil Discourse and Civil Virtue — now the UNC Program for Public Discourse — as interim faculty director in 2019. He has described himself as an outspoken conservative on campus.

    The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees’ apparent vote on Thursday in approval of Clemens was shrouded in secrecy.

    UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz told members of the faculty council last Friday that he expected to announce a final decision on the provost search this week.

    The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees then called a special meeting for Thursday and spent much of the meeting in closed session away from the public, which is permitted for discussion of personnel matters.

    When the Board of Trustees returned to open session, Board Chair Dave Boliek called for a vote on “personnel matters” that were discussed in closed session without giving further detail.

    The board then took a roll call on approval of “action item 1” then on “action item 2 and 3 combined” with no description of the items being voted on.

    Student Government President Lamar Richards voted against action item 1 and abstained from items 2 and 3. All three items passed with support from all other voting members.

    Director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and Elon University Journalism Professor Brooks Fuller said the vote was unorthodox, but not necessarily illegal under North Carolina's open meetings law.

    "It's a little bit unusual for public bodies to vote on things without saying what it is they're voting on," Fuller said.

    Fuller said the legality of the vote "boils down to the substance of those action items, which we don't know."

    "The real problem with this is a problem with public confidence," Fuller said. "It creates a little bit of a black box appearance."

    Clemens served as the interim faculty director of the UNC Program for Public Discourse, an initiative that incited questions from faculty about its ideological aims and lack of funding transparency.

    The mission statement of the UNC Program for Public Discourse says it promotes civil discourse, debate and collaborative disagreement.

    The UNC System Board of Governors initiated the program and looked to similar institutions at Princeton and Arizona State Universities during the planning stages. The Board of Governors invited conservative professor Robert George, founder of the James Madison Program at Princeton, to present on that program at a board meeting.

    In the early stages of planning for the new institute, Clemens wrote an email to George first published by The News & Observer, describing himself as “among the most outspoken conservative members of the Art & Sciences faculty at UNC for many years.”

    Clemens referred to the university administration’s “interest in housing a conservative center on campus” and sought advice from George.

    After the email was obtained by a public records request, two UNC-Chapel Hill professors voiced opposition to the program in an op-ed published in the News & Observer, citing concerns that it would allow outside players and undisclosed donors to influence curriculum. The op-ed authors characterized this as an issue of overreach because it is within the purview of faculty to set curriculum.

    The UNC Program for Public Discourse began offering its first speaker series in March 2021, and at that time Clemens was no longer the faculty director. The program’s series of events include debates and speakers on topics such as “The Future of Conservatism,” “The Politics of Academia,” “Are Reparations Morally Just?” and “Debating the Minimum Wage.”

    Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

    Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.