(UNC photo by Jon Gardiner ’98)

Kevin Guskiewicz takes over in South Building as both Carolina and the state’s university system seek new leadership.

Kevin Guskiewicz is only the second person ever to serve as interim chancellor of the University, which is in an unprecedented position in that the president of North Carolina’s system of higher education, with its 16 individual universities, also is an interim.

Guskiewicz, who built a national reputation for research into sport-related brain injuries before becoming dean of UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences three years ago, was appointed on Feb. 6 following the surprise, accelerated resignation of UNC’s 11th chancellor, Carol L. Folt.

Kevin Guskiewicz (Photo by Kevin Seifert)

“Kevin is an outstanding researcher, innovator and strategic thinker,” said Dr. William Roper, who became interim president of the UNC System a few weeks earlier following the resignation of Margaret Spellings, who had held the post less than three years. As dean, Guskiewicz oversaw Carolina’s largest academic unit. UNC “needs its interim chancellor to be a leader of stature,” Roper said, “someone who knows the institution, knows the state and is ready to drive the University forward. Kevin is that leader.”

On Jan. 14, Folt announced her resignation after five and a half years — simultaneously with an order that the pedestal of the Confederate monument Silent Sam be removed. She planned to stay in the job until May, but the system Board of Governors moved the resignation date to Jan. 31. Board of Governors’ Chair Harry Smith made it clear the board was unhappy with the way Folt handled authorizing the removal of the last of the monument.

Guskiewicz is on record suggesting that the statue be relocated to Bennett Place, a Civil War commemorative site in Durham. Roper said that position was a factor in his choice for interim.

“The Confederate monument is an important issue. I look forward to working with Interim Chancellor Guskiewicz on this. He’s on record as saying that the monument should not be anywhere on the campus and rather should be somewhere else. That’s my position as well. I’m comfortable with his position — that’s one of the reasons I thought he was the right person to lead UNC-Chapel Hill.”

Folt, who had wanted Silent Sam removed from McCorkle Place a year before protesters pulled the statue to the ground last August — citing safety and security concerns — had come under criticism for not acting unilaterally in the face of a state law that requires historic monuments be left alone.

In the end, her decision to remove the pedestal won her extended ovations, including from the GAA’s Board of Directors and UNC’s Board of Trustees. She spent her last week bidding goodbye to a number of campus organizations and attending some classes. The trustees recognized her service on her final day in office as she reiterated she was “at peace” with her decisions.

“As chancellor, the safety of the UNC-Chapel Hill community is my clear, unequivocal and non-negotiable responsibility,” Folt said Jan. 14. (Silent Sam’s pedestal was removed and taken away that night.) “The presence of the remaining parts of the monument on campus poses a continuing threat both to the personal safety and well-being of our community and to our ability to provide a stable, productive educational environment. No one learns at their best when they feel unsafe.”

In the days between Folt’s leaving office and Guskiewicz’s appointment, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Robert Blouin, at Roper’s request, was in charge of the University.

A research star

Kevin Guskiewicz has made interdisciplinary teaching and research a cornerstone of his tenure, promoting the development of courses that span disciplines across the arts and sciences. He has championed the use of high-structure active-learning techniques.

He also is overseeing a major revamping of UNC’s general education curriculum — the first significant overhaul in 12 years.

UNC “needs its interim chancellor to be a leader of stature, someone who knows the institution, knows the state and is ready to drive the University forward. Kevin is that leader.”

— Dr. William Roper, interim president of the UNC System

Guskiewicz, a neuroscientist, is a nationally recognized expert on sport-related concussions. He maintains an active research portfolio and is principal investigator or co-investigator on three active research grants totaling more than $16 million.

In 2011, he was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship — often called a “genius grant” — for his innovative work on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of sport-related concussions. In 2013, Time magazine named him a Game Changer, one of 18 “innovators and problem-solvers that are inspiring change in America.”

A member of UNC’s faculty since 1995, Guskiewicz is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of exercise and sport science, co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center and director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in athletics training from West Chester University, a master’s in exercise physiology/athletic training from the University of Pittsburgh and a doctorate in sports medicine from the University of Virginia.

In a news conference the day after his appointment was announced, Guskiewicz said he could be a candidate for the committee that will search for the 12th chancellor. “I’m thrilled to be leading the University right now,” he said. “I’m confident that we’ll do the right things that I hope would allow me to be a candidate in that search.”

A tumultuous time

Folt’s administration faced two of the most tumultuous issues in recent University history, both of which kept UNC in national headlines.

When she became chancellor in July 2013, Folt inherited at its midpoint what became a seven-year athletics-academics drama over fraudulent classes. That ultimately was resolved in October 2017, when the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions said it found no violations of its rules and announced that the University would not be sanctioned.

Following the NCAA’s decision, Folt said: “Carolina long ago publicly accepted responsibility for what happened in the past. One of the highest priorities of this administration has been to resolve this issue by following the facts, understanding what occurred and taking every opportunity to make our University stronger.

“I believe we have done everything possible to correct and move beyond the past academic irregularities and have established very robust processes to prevent them from recurring,” and she emphasized that the University instituted some 70 reforms in academic policy and practice as a result of the revelations.

A simmering discontent with the Confederate statue, which stood at the University’s gateway just off Franklin Street, began to build in spring 2015 when the trustees voted to change the name of Saunders Hall because of its namesake’s leadership of the Ku Klux Klan in the state. Large-scale protests and face-offs between Silent Sam’s detractors and supporters, sometimes violent, climaxed on Aug. 20, 2018, when outside activists pulled the statue to the ground.

At the direction of the system’s Board of Governors, Folt and the trustees worked to devise a “lawful and lasting” plan to preserve the monument with attention to safety. Their proposal, presented in December, was for the University to build a history and education center near the campus’s southern border to house the statue as part of the trustees’ mandate that UNC create public displays and online resources about its racial history. The Board of Governors responded that the $5.3 million price tag for such a center was out of the question.

The Confederate statue’s pedestal was hauled away late on the day that Folt announced her resignation and gave the removal order. (Photo by Alex Kormann)

As Folt authorized the removal of the statue’s base, the Board of Governors and trustees were back at the drawing board over what to do with the statue.

The monument, commissioned by the Daughters of the Confederacy, was erected in 1913 “in memory of all University students, living and dead, who served in the Confederacy.” Its presence has made some people and groups unhappy at intervals since the 1950s. The outcry against its continued presence has grown louder in the past 10 years. An organization of students and others called the Real Silent Sam Coalition emerged in about 2011, calling the statue offensive to people of color and at first suggesting UNC erect a reinterpretation plaque to explain it.

Students have said they were insulted by its presence — what they call a symbol of the Confederacy’s loyalty to the institution of slavery — some adding that they didn’t feel safe when counterprotesters came to the campus.

Others see Silent Sam as a tribute to those who fought for their homeland in the Civil War, perhaps without regard to the slavery issue. Many have said that removing the statue would be detrimental to the understanding of history.

Two days after Folt’s resignation, 20 former UNC trustees chided the Board of Governors and the state’s lawmakers for playing politics with the University, and other former trustees signed on to the letter later.

“Thousands of hours were spent trying to find the best way to move forward, especially in light of growing hostilities — on many sides — around the presence of Silent Sam,” their letter said. “This was made almost impossible, however, by the hastily passed legislation which prohibited moving the statue.”

A letter signed by more than 20 former UNC trustees stated that “Chancellor Folt paid the price for her leadership and North Carolina lost another great opportunity to resurrect its history as a progressive part of this nation.”

The letter went on to say that “Chancellor Folt paid the price for her leadership and North Carolina lost another great opportunity to resurrect its history as a progressive part of this nation.”

A Board of Governors assessment found “serious deficiencies” in the handling of the event that culminated with Silent Sam being pulled from its pedestal, but the report said it did not find evidence of a conspiracy between University officials and protesters or others to tear down the statue.

Rumors had surfaced shortly after Aug. 20 that South Building administrators had colluded with the police to act on the stated desires of Folt and others that the statue be removed.

The report generally praised the actions of UNC police on that night and during other events surrounding the statue.

“Nevertheless,” the report added, “an analysis of the August 20 event also establishes that the way that UNC-CH plans for and responds to protests must change” as the University faces more threats from outside protest organizations that may not have its best interests in mind.

The assessment found that “inefficient reporting structures led to fundamental miscommunications between University police and UNC-CH senior leadership”; that information-gathering in preparations for protests was “inefficient and inadequate”; that officers were insufficiently trained in crowd control techniques, as their training is focused on student protests, and these crowds were a mix of students and outsiders; and that UNC Police were not adequately staffed for the Aug. 20 event.

Private to public

In April 2013, Folt declared she was going public after a 30-year career at tiny, private, prestigious Dartmouth College.

She inherited a fifth-ranked public (which it still is) that was 13th among all American universities in government research funding (it is now fifth), with a student body growing in prestige every year.

She was greeted by a decidedly conservative turn in state leadership, representatives who were determined to change the way its public universities are funded and the criteria on which their degrees are valued. She also would become familiar with the term “under investigation.” Her predecessor, Holden Thorp ’86, once envisioned being in the job for many years but left after five as UNC was rocked by the athletics-academics scandal.

Folt was Dartmouth’s interim president and declined to be a candidate for the permanent job. The Board of Governors elected her after then-system President Thomas Ross ’75 (JD) explained that he had sought a leader who supported the liberal arts, would work to keep tuition low in accordance with the state constitution, was a proven fundraiser and would understand that academics are the first priority but recognize that athletics have an important role in campus life.

At Dartmouth, Carolina’s first female CEO had been provost, acting provost, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, associate dean of the Faculty for Interdisciplinary Programs, dean of graduate studies, and associate director of the interdisciplinary Superfund Basic Research Program.

Her academic career has been in life science, her research focused on the effects of dietary mercury and arsenic on aquatic life and human health, also conservation of Atlantic salmon and climate change. Ross described her at her hiring as an “internationally recognized environmental scientist.”

She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UC-Santa Barbara, and her doctorate from UC-Davis. She did postdoctoral work at Michigan State University.

Folt lost the financial support of her parents when she chose an out-of-state school and worked to pay her way through Santa Barbara.

David E. Brown ’75

More online:

Beginning in late 1995, the Review has published a series of articles about the lives and times of Carolina’s chancellors, going back to Robert House (class of 1916). The package and additional reporting is at

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