(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.)
It must feel odd to Erskine Bowles ’67 to have a meal in Chapel Hill that doesn’t come from Chick-Fil-A. While Erskine was living a bachelor’s life at the UNC System president’s home, commuting to Charlotte to see his family only on weekends, his routine was legendary: Char-grilled chicken garden salad, once, sometimes twice, a day.
Living simply gave Erskine all the more credibility when he asked others to scale back, as when President Obama asked him to recommended fiscal reforms in a fractured political environment; as when he had to cut $625 million out of the UNC System’s $3 billion budget.
Erskine is not a man who will arrive in a private jet to ask for a handout. First off, he’s not the type to expect anyone to take pity on him. Second, he’ll drive his own car, and those who know him well recommend you think twice before accepting a ride in it. He’s a very safe driver, but his organizational skills don’t follow him to his car. One friend is sure there are some of those Chick-Fil-A wrappers still in the back seat.
Born and raised in Greensboro, Erskine was well familiar with UNC long before he enrolled. From the time he was little taller than the pennant he waved, he came to campus for football and basketball games with his father, Skipper Bowles ’41, from whom he inherited an intense commitment to “add to the community woodpile,” as his father said. Skipper died before he saw Erskine rise to the White House, but Tom Lambeth ’57 was in Skipper’s office one day as Skipper had just learned of one of Erskine’s accomplishments at Columbia Business School.
“Erskine’s really going to do well,” Skipper said. And, he did, Tom said. “I know how proud his father was of Erskine.”
And rightly so. After earning an MBA from Columbia, Erskine began a career in investment banking, first in New York before eventually moving to Charlotte, where he founded an investment banking firm and a venture capital company and, with his college roommate Nelson Schwab ’67, a private equity company.
The national spotlight shown on his talents when President Clinton appointed Erskine to serve as director of the Small Business Administration, then moved him to deputy White House chief of staff, where he helped direct the government’s response to the Oklahoma City bombing, and on to chief of staff. In 2005, Erskine was appointed to United Nations deputy special envoy to aid 13 tsunami-affected countries in Southeast Asia.
Later that year, Erskine returned to Chapel Hill, accepting the presidency of the UNC System in a time of many challenges. And as you’d expect, he left the place better off than when he came. He handled the budget cuts with precision, installing systems that improved the efficiency of the 17-school system while still protecting the academic core. He gave then-Chancellor James Moeser the same advice he gave President Clinton: Having too many ideas is the same as having none. Pick five operating priorities, and make sure everything you do relates to one of them.
“He taught me a vital lesson about disciplined leadership,” James Moeser said.
Erskine restored confidence across the state in the UNC System. He shifted the universities from a supply-driven attitude of “we do what we darn-well please,” to a demand-driven approach of meeting customers’ demands, and in this instance the customers were creative and analytical thinkers who graduated from the universities to function in a knowledge-based global economy. He reoriented some of the universities’ research to industries that would create the jobs of the future in North Carolina and make our state competitive in a global marketplace. Erskine convinced legislators that the state universities have direct impact on the lives of North Carolinians, and he got budget after budget passed in a penny-pinching, contentious political climate. Another significant legacy is the University of North Carolina Tomorrow Commission, a group of business, education, government and nonprofit leaders who listened to North Carolinians for ideas on how the UNC System could be more responsive to their needs.
Erskine also had the opportunity to appoint a new chancellor, Holden Thorp ’86, in his words “a bright, energetic, forward-thinking, level-headed progressive leader.” It’s a decision of which he’s very proud.
Erskine never overlooked an opportunity to say thank you, through dozens of handwritten notes a day. At least the recipients think they are thank-you notes — careful penmanship not being a priority for him.
Along the way, Erskine has been honored with the William Richardson Davie Award in 2001, the Kenan-Flagler Business School Leadership Award in 2010 and now the Distinguished Service Medal.
Erskine continues to serve on corporate and University boards while he decides what’s next for him. For now, he’s busy playing pirate with the six of his nine grandchildren who live in Charlotte — the other three are in Texas — and taking them to games on campus as his father did with him. After 19 years on the road, he’s happy to be living at home with Crandall, and even happier that she still likes having him around.
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. Recipients of the 2011 Distinguished Service Medals are John P. “Jack” Evans, former dean of the Kenan-Flagler Business School; Erskine B. Bowles ’67, who recently retired as president of the UNC System; and Sallie Shuping-Russell ’77, a member of the UNC Board of Trustees.