CHAPEL HILL — Carol Folt made history on the 220th birthday of the University of North Carolina, the nation’s oldest public university.
The dynamic and energetic environmental scientist, officially installed as the 11th UNC chancellor on Saturday, is the first woman to take the helm.
In a speech that paid reverence to the university’s past, Folt laid out her vision for the future in a world “with technology and knowledge exploding, with the socioeconomic and the political landscape changing and our global relationships also in flux.”
Gov. Pat McCrory took the lectern before Folt and stressed his vision for the state’s universities to offer curricula that “align with the needs of the marketplace.”
Folt, who spent her past three decades at Dartmouth, a private college in the Ivy League, stressed throughout her speech the university's mission is one that serves the public and remains accessible to the public.
“Like all of you, I am deeply inspired by Carolina’s history and higher purpose,” Folt said. “I have confidence in our people, and I believe in the capacity of the great public university to help build a just, safe, more prosperous and sustainable world.”
Folt who has spent her first three months on the job in what she called “a listening tour,” said she has learned a lot about the many accomplishments and challenges of the university.
“There is pride in our history, in North Carolina, as the progressive and educational leader in the South, in our medical and educational systems, in the Research Triangle, and in the partnerships that link us to N.C. State, Duke, UNC Asheville and the other universities across the system,” Folt said.
She plans to develop a team of “new and veteran senior leaders” to seek the “best ideas and freshest perspectives” as she moves beyond her first 100 days.
Though she did not mention that UNC football and academic fraud scandals that grabbed headlines during the reign of her predecessor, Holden Thorp, Folt said the university would be “committed to the highest standards of transparency, integrity and accountability” as it moves forward.
‘De-silo this campus’
She plans to seek new ideas to build on long transitions. She briefly mentioned a comprehensive fundraising campaign but did not elaborate on when it would start or the goals.
In an era of “rapid change,” Folt suggested that groups across campus work to knock down barriers and access to the research and other projects taking place across campus. Often, teachers and researchers at universities and institutions of higher learning are accused of isolating themselves in “silos,” where lofty ideas are not necessarily grounded in real-world needs.
“Let’s de-silo this campus,” Folt said.
Folt, a native of Akron, Ohio, told the nearly 2,500 people gathered on the lawn of Polk Place, a campus quad, under the gray, drizzly sky that her connection to public universities is personal.
Her parents, both the first in their families to go to college, were chemists who valued education.
As the granddaughter of Albanian immigrants, Folt said she grew up on a steady diet of Albanian food and “really cool new discoveries.”
Her father’s idea of a “really great field trip” was to go to the Ohio State Fair and skip the rides so they could visit the pig pavilion, take a gander at the largest tomato and learn what variety of corn had been discovered.
“He took us to see the computer at BF Goodrich, which took up a floor bigger than my high school gymnasium,” Folt recounted. “He said, ‘This is the future,’ and we believed him.”
On ‘liberating arts’
Folt, who attended the University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of California at Davis for her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, advocated for the sciences that are her background and for the liberal arts, “or liberating arts” as she said they are often called.
And she noted that UNC may soon be one of the only public universities in the country that covers full financial need.
“I’m proud of all that,” Folt said.
She advocated for diversity in thought, too.
“I believe Carolina can be the leader in shaping a path, for the great public universities in America – one that preserves our excellence and innovation, access and affordability, a deep commitment to the state and gathers strength to innovate and meet new challenges,” Folt concluded to 11 tolls by the bell in the tower of South Building, where the administrative offices of the 11th chancellor are housed.
Board, faculty respond
R. Doyle Parrish, a Raleigh hotel and restaurant owner on the Board of Governors, which oversees the UNC system, praised Folt’s speech afterward.
“The most telling part of her speech was when she said, ‘Let’s break down the silos,’” Parrish said.
Jim Hirschfield, chairman of the UNC art department, said he liked the way Folt stressed the public mission of the university. He also said he was glad McCrory was on the podium as the vision was outlined.
In his early days in office, McCrory said he would propose legislation to overhaul the way higher education is funded in North Carolina, putting the emphasis on job creation, not liberal arts.
“I think some of the educational elite have taken over our education where we are offering courses that have no chance of getting people jobs,” McCrory told conservative talk show host Bill Bennett, the former education secretary for President Ronald Reagan, during an interview in January.
Hirschfield said the fundamentals that art students learn – creative thinking, hard work and expressing themselves – are important in any job. As Folt stressed the need for liberal arts, Hirschfield said he hoped McCrory took note.
“The more he hears the message, the more the whole state will benefit,” Hirschfield said.