(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the awards dinner and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
When the University was recruiting James Moeser, he was struck by a psychology professor on the search committee, a “very intelligent, perceptive woman,” he recalled, who asked him keen, penetrating questions. One of the first faculty members he met at Carolina, Bernadette Gray-Little gave him a powerful first impression of faculty culture here.
Not many years later, she would make an even more memorable impression. By then, Bernadette was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. A faculty member since 1971, she had worked her way up from assistant professor to chair of the psychology department, then senior associate dean for undergraduate education, then executive associate provost. “She earned over a sustained period an incredible degree of admiration and trust from the faculty,” the former chancellor says. Her academic work had earned their respect, and her honesty and credibility gave her tremendous stature on campus.
Still, James was surprised at what happened after Robert Shelton announced he was stepping down as executive vice chancellor and provost to become president of the University of Arizona. The standard procedure was to name an interim provost and then launch a national search for a permanent replacement. But when James began floating names in a meeting of the vice chancellors, Bill Roper interrupted him. Why don’t we just cut to the chase? he asked. We can have a full-blown national search, and six to nine months from now, Bernadette Gray-Little will be provost. Why not just name her now?
Everyone in the room agreed. They trooped up to Bernadette’s office to ask her, and at first she demurred. She had work to do as dean, and she didn’t want to be named without due process. James Moeser talked with the other deans – they were unanimously in favor of her appointment. He talked with the Faculty Advisory Committee and the Board of Trustees – the results were the same. On a campus that places a high value on deliberative procedure and on faculty involvement in searches, it took all of about two weeks to determine that this was everyone’s first choice.
When she was introduced to the Faculty Council as provost, there was a standing ovation.
Bernadette is so widely respected on campus first and foremost because she has a terrific record as a scholar. She graduated from Marywood College in Scranton, Pa. and earned her advanced degrees from St. Louis University. She has been honored with research fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the Social Science Research Council and the Ford Foundation.
As an administrator, Bernadette also has the tremendous advantage of her deep roots in both the state and the University. She grew up in Washington, North Carolina, and that gives her a strong connection with the students at UNC. “It allows her to see in these young people some of her own challenges as a young person growing up in rural North Carolina,” Robert Shelton says. “It gives her empathy with young people as they’re trying to make their way in this complicated world.”
There had been another ovation, on the November day in 2005 when Bernadette was asked to help dedicate the Unsung Founders Memorial, the monument in McCorkle Place to slaves and free persons who had helped build the University in its early days.
She said that she knew little of her ancestors, some of whom were enslaved on South Carolina plantations, because anonymity was forced on them. She spoke eloquently about “the irony of this moment,” that long before persons of color were allowed to study or teach at this University, they contributed their labor and service to the campus.
The monument, she said, “will help to make us and everyone who comes after us, aware and thankful to those who did some of the heaviest lifting, offered the bravest kind of service, and contributed some of the finest physical details to our University.”
Steve Allred ’74, who is now provost at the University of Richmond, has known Bernadette since 2001. She has shown extraordinarily good leadership, he says, in curriculum decisions, in selecting deans, and by overseeing tenure and promotion, all of which have a tremendous impact on the University. “She has done everything that matters on the academic side of the house,” Steve says. “That gives her such an incredible range of understanding of the issues, and it makes her incredible at what she does.”
Bernadette also has the true leader’s capacity to give responsibility to others. She gives broad direction and the authority to do what needs to be done and then expects you to rise to the occasion. She supports her staff, gives them opportunities to develop their skills – and occasionally cracks them up. On their birthdays, she regales them with her own distinctive Happy Birthday song.
When the moment calls for it she can speak the unvarnished truth to the chancellor and to the campus. Yet in a job that can be very stressful, those closest to her have never seen her raise her voice, lose her temper, or act other than with absolute grace and professionalism. What one colleague called the mark of a true leader. What another might call a mark of the guardianship of the finest intellectual details of the University.
The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal has been awarded since 1978 to alumni and others who have provided outstanding service to the GAA and/or to the University. The award is presented at the annual Alumni Luncheon on the weekend of reunions and Commencement in May. This year’s recipients are Bernadette Gray-Little, executive vice chancellor and provost; Dwight M. “Davy” Davidson ’77, past chair of the GAA Board of Directors; Fred N. Eshelman ’72, a major supporter of the pharmacy school; and James H. “Jim” Winston ’55, who helped establish the College of Arts and Sciences’ first overseas facility.