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July 2005
Changing of the Guard
By Susanne Deitzel

In the past 16 years, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte has evolved to become a bustling hub of traditional student activity. University area coffee shops brim over with a notebook-toting society composed of every age, creed nationality, and color; student apartment complexes appoint every corner; and residence halls round out the campus landscape.

Mapping the growth of the institution is complex. But a carefully crafted strategic academic plan, capital developments expanding the architecture of the university, and thoughtful dedication to nurturing relationships within the Charlotte community are certainly central to its success.

The man responsible for much of the university’s success, Chancellor Jim Woodward, will officially retire in July, and while reflecting on the success the university has enjoyed during his tenure, it is even more important to determine which programs are most important for the school’s and the region’s future.

The new guardian of the public’s trust at this premier campus within the UNC system is Dr. Philip L. Dubois, who has served for eight years as president of the University of Wyoming. Yet, while Dubois has spent the last several years honing his skills in the western U.S., he is by no means a stranger to UNC Charlotte.

A professor of political science, Dubois served as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at UNC Charlotte from 1991 until 1997. The successful strategic academic plan implemented by Woodward was, in a large part, authored by none other than Dubois himself.

Dubois says his academic plan offered three overarching objectives: “Our goals were to create and implement doctoral programs which would eventually culminate in UNC Charlotte’s designation as a Research Extensive university, to enhance research productivity and capacity for faculty, and to make these two objectives sufficiently subscribed as to be cost effective.”

Remarks departing Chancellor Woodward, “First and foremost, Phil is a product of higher education and brings a great appreciation for its place in society. Additionally, he not only brings a knowledge of the workings of higher education, but also of this institution specifically. He is a master strategic planner, and is principally responsible for the blueprint we have followed for the past several years.”

 

All Paths Lead Home

Dubois projects a focused, welcoming and surprisingly calm demeanor for someone who just blew in the door seconds ago. Despite the hectic schedule incumbent on the new leader of the university, he is energized and ready to go.

Dubois knows he has a lot to learn about UNC Charlotte. He will be conducting three to four months of fact-finding and meeting with trustees, regional leaders, faculty and the former chancellor before a plan for the school is set in motion. Says Dubois of his charge, “I have never been in an institution where a person’s sole vision ever got them anywhere. My plan is to learn as much as I can to determine where all entities are invested, both emotionally and resource-wise, to make sure we make the best decisions for the university as a whole.”

While his statement might appear simply diplomatic, it is also wholly sincere. He understands personal investment. By the end of the lengthy and highly competitive UNC Charlotte chancellor search, both Dubois and his wife, Lisa, found their hearts and minds wrapped around the position.

Dubois’ telling of his hiring is colorful. After initially declining to be involved in the search, he had come across various recent happenings at UNC Charlotte. By his account, he “got homesick” and decided to enter the fray late in the search process. After calling Chancellor Woodward for his blessing, and UNC President Molly Broad to underscore his enthusiasm for the position, he threw his hat into the ring. Recalls Dubois, “I remember Jim saying that this was the best job in the country for higher education, and at once the opportunity appeared too good to pass up.”

During a highly confidential search that found Dubois traveling up a service elevator in Ballantyne Resort, and attending several rotations of meetings with the university’s trustees, Dubois left the final interviews “with a very good feeling about the position.”

Early in the week prior to the university system’s decision, Broad said that she would have the decision “buttoned up by close of business Monday.” Yet, the following Saturday afternoon found Dubois and his wife enduring a painfully silent phone, and a few disheartened glances. Recalls Dubois, “Monday morning rolled around, we looked at one other and Lisa said, ‘It’s over, isn’t it?’” We were just devastated. I went to the gym to blow off some steam, and I saw a message from Molly on my Blackberry. Bracing myself for the worst, I returned the call and she said simply, “So, Phil, are you ready to come to Charlotte?”

“I was floored,” Dubois continues. “I came home and whispered into Lisa’s ear, ‘We got the job’! She exploded with one emotion after the other, and we celebrated. That Thursday was my first meeting with the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors.”

 

Putting Education to Work

For her part, Broad says that the decision to bring Dubois onboard was based on several vital characteristics of his leadership. “Phil is a person that has extensive experience at a public urban university like UNC Charlotte; he exhibits great imagination and strategic vision. Too, he provides a very energetic leadership, which is essential to sustain the growth of the institution.”

After Dubois’s well-regarded tenure at UNC Charlotte, his presidency at the University of Wyoming continued to furnish him with the skills and experience necessary for his current post. Comments Dubois, “My time at Wyoming was wonderful, however, most of the programs I helped create had come to fruition, and the opportunity here at UNC Charlotte is enormous.”

Dubois credits Woodward with providing a strong example, as well as a generous advocacy for his evolving career. “Jim Woodward has always demonstrated an incredible degree of transparency and openness both in his leadership and expressing his vision. By working with him, I was involved not only with the academic plan, but I was also exposed to the importance of a well-run intercollegiate sports program, fundraising and the physical development of a campus. When I decided to go to Wyoming I was very well-equipped to assume the task at hand.”

Dubois put this education to work. While serving as president at the University of Wyoming, he had met and/or exceeded several goals similar to those that UNC Charlotte holds as vital to its future. For example, Dubois was instrumental in raising state funding for the university by 60 percent during his term at Wyoming. Recently, he secured the highest single gift in the history of the school, and he exceeded his latest fundraising goal of $125 million by at least $10 million. He also succeeded in achieving several enrollment objectives and exceeded his goals for external funding, total research dollars per tenure track faculty, total private dollars, and number of annual contributors. Under Dubois’ leadership, the school has secured $60 million in research funding for 550 tenured faculty. He has also significantly amped up the school’s exposure in intercollegiate athletics by mediating a conference transition to Mountain West USA, much as Woodward has done with UNC Charlotte’s shift to the Atlantic 10.

However, Dubois’ most obvious talent is his interpersonal skill. Dubois answers questions very openly and succinctly. He easily engages in complex reasoning in a way that betrays not only his considerable intelligence, but also the political acuity necessary in higher education arena. Comments Dubois, “You must establish personal relationships and trust to get things accomplished. As well, you also must compromise, set priorities and be able to articulate your vision as clearly as possible and help everyone to see that your cause is their cause.”

 

The Man for the Job

One thing is for certain about Phil Dubois’s appointment: He has the complete confidence of his predecessor and the system president, not to mention several senior faculty and administration members who were present during his former tenure at UNC Charlotte. But in speaking with Chancellor Dubois, one gets a sense that his dedication extends beyond the university, to the people of the region it serves. His tenure at Wyoming clearly underscores the level of commitment and passion the man has exhibited.

Dubois presided over the University of Wyoming during several high-profile tragedies, not the least of which was the nationally publicized murder of Matthew Shepherd and its aftermath. Also during his tenure, a student jumped to his death from a residence hall, and eight student athletes were killed by a drunk driver – another student – just days after 9/11. These crises truly measured the man. Under the spotlight of intense media scrutiny, political pressures, overwhelming grief and substantive policy issues, Dubois not only led the University of Wyoming, but also represented it to his community and the nation.

From those tough years he gleaned significant lessons. Says Dubois, “Sometimes you don’t choose your opportunities for leadership. They happen upon you, and you are forced by virtue of your position to deal with unpleasant things that have implications that extend well beyond the individuals immediately involved in a tragedy.” In a paper he penned titled “Presidential Leadership in a Time of Crisis,” Dubois explains, “…a crisis does not make character, it reveals character…”

While he says that the chancellorship of UNC Charlotte is not as visible a role as the presidency in Wyoming (where the university president is the second most visible public officer in the state after the governor), he intends to continue to develop a strong institutional identity and be very active in garnering public attention for the university. Says Dubois, “One of the goals we had at UNC Charlotte several years ago was to bring the school to the city by virtue of a center city campus. Now that we have addressed that need, we want to bring the people of Charlotte to the main campus, and one way we plan on doing that is effectively utilizing the chancellor’s residence.”

He explains, “This building is probably one of the most important contributions Jim made to this campus because it opens up an opportunity to expose people to what the university is about. The public needs to know that this is their university. We have 850 talented faculty members and over 2,500 employees. We can be a vital resource for companies in terms of research, education, internships, recruiting and cultural amenities that are very attractive to employees. Here we will have a forum to lead these discussions and demonstrate our potential.”

Obviously, there is a lot to be done, and expectations are high for Dubois. Says Chancellor Woodward, “The challenge is to continue administering growth of academic programs and the research essential to undergirding economic growth, attracting the best faculty, and to really connect the internal instruction mechanisms of the school with the external capacity to support the economy.”

To that end, Dubois is optimistic and confident. His familiarity with UNC Charlotte’s current operational plan coupled with the experience he culled at Wyoming has definitely made him the man for the job. Concludes Dubois sagely, “I told them when I accepted this job that I wasn’t going to hit the ground running – but that I would be walking pretty darn fast!”

 

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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