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January 2010
Clear Vision
By Ellison Clary

     Nearing five years as chancellor, Phil Dubois keeps tabs on plenty of projects at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Besides academics, these range from starting a football program to guarding campus safety.

     Yet his vision remains in focus.

     “I think it’s the same vision Jim Woodward had,” says Dubois, naming his predecessor who is widely praised for his 16-year tenure. “That is to build a major urban research university.”

     UNC Charlotte’s new mission statement declares it is exactly that—the state’s urban research university—and the board of governors of the 17-campus University of North Carolina system recently approved that document.

     Dubois quickly lists a host of academic enhancements he’d like to achieve as part of a UNC Tomorrow blueprint of System President Erskine Bowles.

     He speaks easily and in detail about the campus he returned to in summer 2005 after eight years as president of the University of Wyoming. From 1991 to 1997, he had served UNC Charlotte as a professor of Political Science, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs.

     He’s enthusiastic about what the school is and what he believes it will become.

 

Taking Initiative

     After official installment in early 2006, Dubois started 55 initiatives. They were aimed at strengthening the institution academically, administratively and in its relations with the greater Charlotte community.

     He elaborates of progress in four important areas: increasing visibility, establishing a center city Charlotte showplace, advocating for a campus light rail stop and creating an energy production center.

     For visibility, he says, “the common refrain was that we were the best-kept secret in Charlotte, if not North Carolina.” Mitigating that is the newest division—university relations and community affairs—and its efforts in stronger branding as well as a beefed-up Web site.

     “The decision to construct a center city building was critical,” Dubois says.

     Woodward had acquired the First Ward land near the light rail tracks, but Dubois made a distinctive structure his top legislative priority and he won support from Bowles. Construction is underway on the 12-story, cantilevered design that will house the university’s MBA program in 2011.

     Dubois also advocated for a northern extension of Charlotte’s light rail, with a stop near the newly completed student union. “Long-term, long after I am chancellor, it will turn out to be a very important decision,” he predicts.

     Then there is the push to create EPIC, the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center. Engineering Dean Bob Johnson envisions it as an increasingly vital work force development tool as Charlotte develops a budding energy sector. With legislative funding and the university system’s blessing, construction has started for a 200,000-square-foot, $76 million building.

     “EPIC is designed to train engineers in all kinds of power generation, including nuclear, traditional, biofuels and alternative,” Dubois says.

     Then he switches to health care, which he says is already larger in this region than the vaunted financial services industry.

     “Inevitable” is how he characterizes UNC Charlotte’s prospects to start a medical school, although he adds “daunting” to describe near-term funding initiatives. For now, the school will continue a collaborative research relationship with Carolinas HealthCare System and will help the Chapel Hill campus expand its third- and fourth-year classes in Charlotte. The eventual goal is to involve Charlotte with first- and second-year students, as well.

     “It won’t be long,” Dubois adds, “before we will make an argument to have a school of public health care. It would be out of our College of Health and Human Services. The degree would be in Public Health.”

     For the next five years, Dubois has more goals. For starters, he wants to strengthen the newly created College of Arts + Architecture and enhance the university’s offerings in the fine and performing arts.

     But that isn’t nearly all.

     To the school’s 92 bachelor’s, 59 master’s and 18 doctoral programs, Dubois wants to add 15 bachelor’s, 15 master’s and 12 doctoral paths. Not all will win approval, and UNCC couldn’t implement them all even if they did, he admits. Still, he wants to establish momentum.

     Robyn Massey, UNCC Alumni Association president, gives Dubois high marks. “He did a tremendous job of taking the vision that Chancellor Woodward had and continuing to develop it,” says Massey, a 1981 mathematics graduate.

     “He’s the right man at the right time,” continues the project manager for IBM in Charlotte. “We need somebody who will allow us to get the notoriety that we’ve been so long deserving of.”

 

A Diverse Campus

     Surprisingly for many, UNC Charlotte’s campus enrollment is nearing 25,000, 80 percent of whom are full-time students. The school has about 1,000 faculty and 2,500 staff.

     Students come from almost all 50 states and from about 100 countries. A bit more than 52 percent are female. Fifteen percent are African-American and another 10 percent represent other minority groups.

     “We are actually the most diverse campus in the system,” Dubois says.

     Once identified as a commuter school, about 25 percent of students now live on campus. Two-thirds of them work and about the same number receive financial aid. Around 40 percent are first-generation collegians but, at 55 percent, the graduation rate is higher than many would surmise for that mix. More than half the students live on campus or within a mile of campus.

     The school is putting more classes online, but Dubois adds a caveat. “Over the past 10 years, we have become a pretty traditional-oriented undergraduate population and that still requires certain face-to-face time with faculty.”

     Dubois admits that concern for student safety is an enormous, ongoing consideration.

     “We are not a dangerous campus, but it’s a dangerous world and we have very porous borders,” he says. “We rehearse disaster preparedness regularly.”

     To serve an increase of 10,000 students anticipated by 2020, Dubois says, “We’re going to need some additional buildings,” naming a new $120 million science structure as the next priority.

     The $65 million student union was just completed last fall.

     “Students have been jamming it,” Dubois smiles. “I think it already is affecting traffic patterns on campus because the students are spending a lot more time there—and spending more time on the weekends at UNC Charlotte.”

     Dubois admits to realizing his most fun through working on capital development. “That’s a tangible, visible, touchable mark of progress,” he says. “When we saw the students go into the student union the first time, it was a very gratifying moment.”

 

Hitting the Big-Time

     Many students dream of a big-time football program. A veteran of a Division 1A pigskin operation in Wyoming, Dubois is convinced the sport is necessary here.

     “There is a considerable sentiment among a vast majority of board of trustees members to move forward and try to find a way to pay for football through a combination of student fees and private donations, including seat license sales,” he says.

     For construction of a stadium, he cites recessionary interest rates that are low enough that “this is a moment that we won’t see again.”

     Football was probably the last issue Dubois wanted to deal with, chuckles Dennis Bunker, who was alumni president during the chancellor’s first year. With a 1981 economics degree, he now owns Bunker Land Group in Charlotte.

     He praised what he calls Dubois’ “range,” his ease in dozens of different settings.

     “For the football issue,” Bunker says, “he analyzed that opportunity and distilled it to its simplest form, which is, ‘Can we pursue this or not?’”

     When the football team kicks off, its players will be called Charlotte 49ers, a shortened moniker the school’s athletics teams use. While he acknowledges the name works for sports, Dubois professes his firm belief that the institution must remain the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

     “There is considerable brand equity in that name,” he says simply. “We have 80,000 alumni with degrees from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and they have to be considered.”

     Dubois praises his cabinet of direct reports. It includes Beth Hardin, vice chancellor for business affairs; Joan Lorden, provost and chief academic officer; Judy Rose, athletic director; Niles Sorenson, director of development and alumni relations; David Dunn, who is responsible for university relations and community affairs, as well as, campus liaison to the General Assembly; Art Jackson in student affairs; chief information officer Jay Dominic; Steve Moser, vice chancellor for research and federal relations; and David Broome, general counsel.

     He lauds the initiatives of special entities such as the Charlotte Research Institute, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Institute for Social Capital. Additionally, he feels the university is interfacing strongly with David Murdock’s North Carolina Research Institute in Kannapolis.

     He likes the interaction the school enjoys with area leadership, taking particular pride in recognition from the Charlotte Regional Partnership. That group honored the university for promoting economic development.

     Some feel the school doesn’t receive proper financial rewards. They fault a university system funding formula that has not always been kind. Dubois admits the funding mechanisms don’t recognize all the needs of a rapidly changing school such as UNC Charlotte, but cites strong support and advice from President Bowles on capital projects.

     “I told our people I don’t expect these formulas to change and we are not going to whine about it,” Dubois says forcefully.

     “We are a well-funded institution by comparison with many places in higher education,” he adds. “Faculty salaries have become more competitive, during the Bowles years in particular, and we are getting our first choices for faculty when we hire.”

     Indeed, Dubois voices certainty that other institutions regularly try to raid his campus.

     “One of the great things about UNC Charlotte is that we have been able to hold onto people,” he smiles. “They enjoy the working environment here and they like the excitement that we are building something.”

     Promoting campus growth coupled with that of the region is what faculty president Alan Freitag calls a strength of Dubois. But the associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies, who has held faculty leadership since April, says Dubois should be more visible.

     “As a public relations advisor,” Freitag explains, “I would say he needs to get engaged in the faculty community and the student community and let everyone see how committed he is to this university’s continued greatness.”

     Dubois hosts many social events at the chancellor’s on-campus residence. Often presiding over these is UNC Charlotte’s first lady Lisa Dubois. Her parties have won a reputation for creative spark and enticing menus.

     Dubois grins about Lisa’s social prowess. “She comes by it through having had a very creative mother and grandmother,” he says. “She’s awfully good at being a hostess for university events. It’s a lot of work that sometimes doesn’t get recognized.”

     At 59, Dubois hopes he and Lisa will remain at the university until retirement. But he points out that Bowles is widely expected to step down in fall 2011.

     “Obviously, I’ve got to be able to work with his successor,” Dubois says. “But I certainly came back to Charlotte with every intention of staying here.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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