UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor tapped as next Michigan State president


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Dive Brief:

  • Kevin Guskiewicz, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said Friday he will take over the Michigan State University presidency in March.
  • Guskiewicz, a career academic, has been at UNC-Chapel Hill since the 1990s. He has guided North Carolina’s public flagship through rocky times, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. Supreme Court challenge that struck down the university’s race-conscious admissions policies. 
  • Michigan State officials praised the choice in public statements Friday. “Kevin Guskiewicz will assume the presidency of Michigan State University with a wealth of experience and the vision required to advance the university along its trajectory of excellence,” said Rema Vassar, chair of the board of trustees. “His extensive background in higher education positions him well to champion our strategic initiatives.” 

Dive Insight:

Pundits often cite North Carolina as a state where partisanship reigns over public higher education.

Republican lawmakers dominate the Legislature and name all of the North Carolina public university system’s board members. They’ve been accused of using this power to meddle in affairs traditionally left to administrators, including pressuring the system and individual campus boards.

It’s this environment in which Guskiewicz, who was rumored to have fallen out with some of the state’s power brokers, has run one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities. It enrolls more than 31,500 students. 

Guskiewicz stepped into the chancellor job on an interim basis in early 2019, then permanently later that year. 

He was immediately thrust into scandal, the debate over whether the university should host a Confederate-era monument known as Silent Sam, which protesters had toppled in 2018. Guskiewicz caught flak because one of his deputies had helped arrange to hand it over to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a neo-Confederate group. 

Ultimately, a county judge in 2020 blocked the deal, ruling the group lacked standing to bring the lawsuit it had filed to take ownership of the statue.

Guskiewicz also helmed the university’s fall 2020 campus reopening, the first full year of COVID-19. But the coronavirus’s spread shut down in-person classes within days, and critics at the time argued political pressures had forced it open in the first place.

A year later, he took heat for the fumbled hiring of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. She was due to join UNC-Chapel Hill faculty that year, but instead opted for Howard University after the North Carolina college’s trustees initially declined to vote on her tenure bid. 

This extreme break in precedent was also related to political animus, this time against her best-known work, the 1619 Project, a deep examination of how slavery shaped American culture.

Guskiewicz will be trading a job defined by political rancor for one with its own controversies.

Michigan State is still wading through the fallout of the Larry Nassar scandal, a former doctor who sexually abused hundreds of university athletes and members of the USA Gymnastics team.

Nassar pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct charges in 2017, and Michigan State settled with his victims for $500 million a year later. But a group of sexual abuse survivors and their families sued just this year, alleging university officials hid thousands of documents related to the case.

Since the scandal broke in 2017, Michigan State has had five presidents, two permanent and three temporary. 

Michigan State representatives lauded Guskiewicz’s career Friday.

He started at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1995 as a professor in the exercise and sports department. He founded the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center and is “a nationally recognized expert on sport-related concussions,” according to Michigan State.

He then rose through Chapel Hill’s ranks, becoming the dean of the college’s arts and sciences dean before being named interim chancellor. 

“I am eagerly looking forward to working with all Spartans to build on this great university’s strong historical foundation,” Guskiewicz said in a statement Friday. “I intend to foster a culture of collaboration and, by working together, we can propel MSU to even greater eminence through its powerful commitment to student success, knowledge discovery and land-grant service.”


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