Interim UNC System president selected
The University of North Carolina Board of Governors has selected the man who could well be charged with nominating the next chancellor of Western Carolina University.
On Thursday, Nov. 1, the board’s Committee on Personnel and Tenure met to consider who should be named interim UNC system president following President Margaret Spellings’ departure, nominating Dr. William L. Roper for the position. The full board met immediately following the committee and confirmed the selection by a unanimous vote. All discussions on the matter were held in closed session, with the votes themselves taken in open session. Twenty-three of the 28 board members were present for the emergency session, which was announced at 9 a.m. the previous day.
WCU Interim Chancellor Alison Morrison-Shetlar said she was pleased with the pick.
“Dr. Roper has a deep understanding of the UNC System that will enable him to hit the ground running and continue the good work done within the University of North Carolina System,” she said. “He will provide strong leadership and stability during this period of transition, and I look forward to working with him on behalf of Western Carolina University and the UNC System.”
Roper is currently CEO of UNC Health Care, dean of the UNC School of Medicine and vice chancellor for medical affairs at UNC Chapel Hill, having worked for the university since 1997. Before that, he held a variety of leadership roles on the national level — he is a previous director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and held leadership positions in the White House under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He has also worked as administrator of the Health Care Financing Administration, which is responsible for Medicare and Medicaid.
Roper received his M.D. and Master of Public Health degrees from the University of Alabama. A member of the National Academy of Medicine, he was last year named to Modern Healthcare’s 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare list and is expected to receive the N.C. Award for Public Service — the state’s highest civilian honor, awarded by the governor — later this month.
The board hired Roper with a salary of $775,000 per year, which is equivalent to the base salary offered Spellings when she was selected in 2015 and given the highest base salary ever afforded a UNC System leader. Spellings ended up earning significantly more than $775,000, taking home performance bonuses of $90,000 in 2017 and $95,000 in 2018.
The transition process
Roper will start work on Jan. 1, overlapping with Spellings for two weeks before her last day Jan. 15. Spellings had originally offered to stay on board through March 1, but in a press conference following the Nov. 1 meeting Board Chairman Harry Smith said that the shortened timeline should be enough for Spellings to tie things up in North Carolina.
“Margaret (Spellings) has a very finite list of things she wanted to accomplish,” he said while sitting at a table with Spellings and Roper. “She feels very certain it can be done by Jan. 15.”
Spellings unexpectedly announced her intent to resign Oct. 24, less than three years after her first day on the job March 1, 2016, which came with a five-year employment contract. She did not give any definitive reason for her departure but made it clear that it was her own decision rather than the result of pressure from the board, saying that it was “just the right time” to move on. She intends to continue her career in public service and will likely relocate to her home state of Texas.
Morrison-Shetlar said that Spellings has been “instrumental” in various initiatives and issues that have had a significant positive impact on WCU, such as the N.C. Promise tuition reduction program and funding to replace the steam plant.
“I am personally grateful for Margaret (Spellings’) guidance and counsel and know we will all feel the absence of her leadership,” said Morrison-Shetlar.
Despite leaving with more than two years left in her contract, Spellings will receive a $500,000 separation payment and $35,000 in relocation expenses. When asked during the Nov. 1 press conference about the rationale for these terms, Smith said the payment was due to additional work Spellings promised on top of what was stated in the employment contract. He did not say what that work consisted of. The Smoky Mountain News has requested a copy of Spellings’ employment contract, but it has not been provided as of press time.
“We have a contract we entered into, so we went through the process of what the contract actually was, and on top of the contract we were able to negotiate some things that Margaret (Spellings) was willing to give us and help us with, and we compensated according to that,” he said.
When he takes on the interim president’s role in January, Roper will have “severed the tie” with UNC Health Care, where he is currently CEO, he said in the press conference. In May, Roper had announced his intention to step down from his three-fold role in May 2019. It’s unclear how long he will remain in the interim role. When asked about the timeline for installing a permanent president, Smith had no answer.
“Right now is a great day, and we’re just ready to settle down, let Bill (Roper) go to work,” said Smith. “That’s not even in the thought process right now.”
In the last leadership transition, the board asked then-President Tom Ross to leave office in January 2015, selecting Spellings as his successor in October of that year. Ross left office in December 2015, with Junius Gonzales serving as interim president through Spellings’ first day of work on March 1, 2016.
During the 2015 search, the board formed three committees to conduct the process — one committee was charged with soliciting public input and creating a description of the ideal candidate; a second reviewed applications; and a third developed a plan and budget for the search. There is no guarantee that the board will use the same process this time around, but that is the existing template.
Unlike in the 2015-16 transition, an interim president has been named prior to a permanent hire being chosen. Roper deflected a question during the press conference as to whether he was interested in the permanent job.
“I really do believe in public service and believe part of what that entails is when you’re asked to do something, almost always you say yes, unless there’s a strong reason not to,” he said. “So I said yes to this. I look forward to having supper with my wife tonight, and we’ll work on tomorrow, but we’re not worried about weeks and months in the future. That will take care of itself.”
The WCU chancellor search
Roper said he looks forward to working with the public to “operate this precious activity, the state’s public higher education system” and that he prioritizes the system’s “responsibility to shape minds toward inspiring humanity in kindness and a sense of belonging for all people, not only in our institutions but in our world.” He emphasized the team effort involved in his past accomplishments and thanked Spellings for her “amazing leadership,” stating that “whatever success I have will in large part be due to what she has already done and the things she’s put in motion.”
“Please be very clear. Everything I’ve ever done has been a team effort, and this surely is,” he said. “I need and want your help, please.”
Spellings and Smith were both complimentary of Roper during the press conference, with Spellings commenting that she “can’t think of anybody I’d rather give the reigns to” and Smith saying that Roper, “a known operator” with “a long, storied history of success,” was his “number one choice” for the interim position.
“The UNC system is a very complex asset,” said Smith. “One of the things I was looking for was someone who had actually run and managed a sophisticated asset. Bill (Roper) has done that at the highest levels of success.”
The leadership transition comes at a pivotal time for Western Carolina University, which is in the midst of a search to hire a new chancellor. Former Chancellor David O. Belcher went on medical leave Dec. 31, 2017, following a battle with brain cancer, and passed away June 17 of this year. Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar has been serving as interim chancellor in the months since but has stated publicly that she is not seeking the permanent job.
According to the search process Spellings laid out in January, WCU sent a list of three candidates, in unranked order, for Spellings to choose from in July. Spellings sent her pick to the Board of Governors for approval, but the board came out of a closed-session meeting on the topic without voting on the candidate. That person later withdrew from consideration, and the board said that it would conduct a review of the search process used to arrive at the name.
But in September, the board said that its new search process — a draft was released in October — would not apply to the chancellor searches already underway at WCU and Elizabeth City State University. The WCU Chancellor Search Committee reformed and met Sept. 21 to kick off the second round of the process. The WCU Board of Trustees is expected to approve a list of three nominees in early March, with those names then forwarded to whoever sits in the president’s office at that time, who will choose the final name to submit for Board of Governors approval.
In an interview Oct. 24, two days before her resignation announcement, Spellings said the chancellor search was on track to have a new hire in place for the start of the 2019-20 academic year.