Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz on July 19 apologized to UNC Board of Governors members for failing to notify them before he publicly announced plans to offer free tuition to students who meet certain income criteria.
Some board members sharply chided Guskiewicz for his plan, announced in a July 7 campus message, which would, beginning with the incoming class in 2024, provide free tuition and required fees for in-state undergraduates whose families make less than $80,000 annually. The announcement of the plan was ill-timed, some BOG members said, given the June 29 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action that struck down admissions programs at UNC and Harvard University that relied in part on racial considerations, saying they violate the Constitution’s 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
“I think your timing was awful,” BOG Chairman Randy Ramsey told Guskiewicz. “I think for it to be perceived that it was done in reaction to the Supreme Court decision is just a terrible, terrible communication error on your part.”
Ramsey told Guskiewicz it was inappropriate for members of the BOG and the University’s Board of Trustees to learn about Guskiewicz’s plan from the news media. “It may be in your authority, but this was a big announcement,” he said. “I think just a little common courtesy would have gone a long way, and I don’t see a lot of that here.”
Guskiewicz apologized for not informing board members or trustees before the announcement but defended his plan. “Admittedly, we were excited about this and excited about the opportunity to announce it to our campus community, including many who worked tirelessly to make those opportunities a reality for our students,” Guskiewicz said in his opening remarks. “Our communication of the rollout could have and should have been better, and for that I’m sorry. But I’m sure that you agree that this aligns with our collective priority of improving the affordability of a great education to more people of North Carolina, and for that we should all be proud.”
The new plan will cover unmet tuition and fees for 150 to 200 students and cost an estimated $500,000 to $600,000 annually, which will be covered by funds raised during UNC’s five-year capital campaign, which raised more than $1 billion for scholarships and fellowships, according to the University. He said his plan extends opportunities beyond existing financial assistance programs including Blue Sky Scholars and the Carolina Covenant.
“We want every student who dreams of Carolina or any of our UNC system schools to have the financial confidence to apply,” Guskiewicz said. “And I know that you want this opportunity for the young people of North Carolina as well. I also know that despite our accessibility efforts, some still consider Carolina out of their reach. For decades, UNC has made this a priority. We’ve been a leader in affordability in higher education.”
Through a combination of resources, Carolina already covers tuition and fees for nearly 5,000 undergraduates, including about 3,600 whose household income is less than $80,000, Guskiewicz said, adding that U.S. News & World Report has ranked Carolina as the No. 1 public university for best value for 18 consecutive years.
The plan also calls for embedding five outreach officers in under-resourced communities in 27 counties — from Craven County in the east to Gaston County west of Charlotte — to spread awareness of UNC’s affordability. That part of the plan drew criticism from board member C. Philip Byers, who lives in western North Carolina and noted no county west of Gaston would be part of the outreach program. “Please tell me that Gaston County is not the furthest west county that we’ll be serving,” Byers asked.
As Guskiewicz answered yes, Byers interrupted, “Wrong answer, chancellor. I love my good friends from Gaston, but that leaves everything from [Interstate] 77 basically to Tennessee and Georgia, once again, out of the program. I know I always speak on behalf of the mountain people, but hell I’m one of them. … Don’t we have a little something we can do for the mountain people?”
Guskiewicz explained the locations were selected based on a number of criteria, including its partnerships with the Carolina College Advising Corps, which has been in existence for many years and is in more than 40 schools statewide to help students complete financial aid forms and prepare for the SAT. Many students who receive assistance are first-generation-college students. UNC also relied on N.C. Department of Public Instruction data, which classifies counties based on school resources, the number of college-bound students and other factors, to identify counties.
Guskiewicz committed to reexamining the counties, adding that System President Peter Hans shared Byers’ demographics concern. During his opening remarks, he said the program’s goal is to have multiple students from every county across North Carolina part of the program.
BOG member Reginald Holley ’89 supported Guskiewicz’s efforts. “Having grown up with meager means in the projects of Benson, North Carolina, in rural North Carolina, the education that I received at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill literally changed my life and the life of my family, and I am forever grateful,” he said. “I applaud the commitment of my alma mater to provide this tuition opportunity to as many of our state citizens as may need it, because tuition should never, ever be a barrier to our citizens enjoying the benefits of the constituent institutions of the University of North Carolina.”
Guskiewicz faced some of the toughest questions from BOG member Haywood “Woody” White, who referenced Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion in the affirmative action decision, in which Thomas questioned the benefit of racial diversity in education. “I’m curious, in light of the court’s ruling and the basis of the ruling, if you agree or disagree with his [Thomas’] statement in that regard?” White asked Guskiewicz.
Guskiewicz said the lens by which he views the rule is his experience at a place such as Carolina, “where those different lived experiences and the curriculum coming to life, when you have students in that classroom that can contribute in a meaningful way, that I think prepares our students for becoming active participants in our democracy.” He added that the Supreme Court decision has been made, “and we will abide by that decision.”
— Laurie D. Willis ’86