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One on One: UNC’s new president

By D.G. Martin

“Who is Peter Hans?”

This is a question I am getting from friends who have learned that Hans has been elected the next president of the University of North Carolina.

Maybe they think that because I was once a vice president of the university system, I still know something about what is going on there. I don’t.

But, yes, I did know almost 30 years ago when Hans (class of 1991) was part of a group of young activist student politicians at UNC-Chapel Hill, a group that included Gene Davis, currently a member of the board of trustees at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Tim Moore, now speaker of the state House of Representatives.

The group contained Republicans and Democrats, but they supported each other in student politics, and were mostly fast friends despite their political differences. Said another way, they did not let differences in partisan politics get in the way of helping each other when they could.

Although Hans is still a strong Republican, he continues that tradition of working with people on all sides of the political spectrum. Currently president of the state’s community college system, he will begin work at the university system on August 1. He will succeed Bill Roper, who provided steady leadership as interim president during challenging times that featured controversy about Confederate monuments, the raging coronavirus and an unusual high incidence of pettiness among some members of the board of governors.

Roper announced early on that he would not be a candidate for the permanent position. Beginning in August, Hans will have to deal on a daily basis with, as he says, “the thousands of questions that are being raised and thought through as we look forward to a careful and helpful reopening.”

In the meantime, Dr. Roper will shoulder that burden.

In addition to the health-related challenges the virus presents, Hans will confront an unprecedented set of financial challenges arising from the pandemic. Revenues from the state will be down. So will tuition payments on all the campuses. Just keeping each of the 17 campuses open will be a herculean task.

Hans brings an impressive resume to these challenges.

A loyal Republican, Hans worked on the staff of Sen. Lauch Faircloth and assisted Elizabeth Dole, Richard Burr and other Republicans. Back in North Carolina, he and Democrat former Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker formed a lobbying firm. He served on the university’s board of governors and was chairman for a term.

His ability to work on both sides of the political aisle brought a rare joint statement from Gov. Roy Cooper, Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger, and House Speaker Tim Moore: “Peter Hans has done tremendous work as president of the N.C. Community College System, and he’s the right choice for UNC System President. That we all agree on Peter is a testament to the respect he commands as an able, competent leader.”

Some, perhaps many, faculty members across the system may complain that their new leader is not an academic, lacking the PhD that many consider essential for an academic leadership career. But since the creation of the multi-campus Consolidated University of North Carolina in 1931, none of the presidents (Frank Porter Graham, Gordon Gray, William Friday, Dick Spangler, Molly Broad, Erskine Bowles, Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings) were PhDs. Their success, or lack of it, came from their political skills, their management and organizational efforts and their ability to inspire faculty, legislators, students and campus supporters.

Hans’ experience in the management and governance of North Carolina higher education and his talents in working in the state’s political jungle arguably have prepared him better for the president’s job than any of his predecessors when they began work.

All North Carolinians, whether they agree with me or not, should wish Hans good luck in his new job.

He is going to need it.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and other times.

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