Tension between UNCW chancellor Gary Miller, the university’s board of trustees and others within the university system stems from numerous issues beyond the dismissal of a fraternity from campus, according to several current and former university trustees and other individuals familiar with the situation.
How Miller handled a number of issues, including the decision not to cut five sports programs, led to a souring of relations between him and the board. The problems had more to do with how he handled the decision-making process as opposed to the decisions he made, those sources said.
The end result, they said, is he lost the support of many board members.
“The board has factions that would make it difficult for him to continue,” said Linda Pearce, who served as the board of trustees’ chairwoman until July 2013.
Miller is currently a finalist for the position of president at SUNY Buffalo State and the position of chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Decisions on both positions are expected in the coming weeks, according to the schools. He was previously a finalist to lead Youngstown State University, but he wasn’t selected for the position.
UNCW spokeswoman Janine Iamunno declined to comment about the relationship between Miller and trustees, but said that the chancellor has not been asked to leave.
A number of other current trustees were contacted and either did not have a comment or did not return messages for comment. Several people, including university employees, trustees and community stakeholders, said board members began to have concerns about Miller a couple of years ago, according to several sources who did not want to use their names, pointing to the sensitivity of the situation.
The most mentioned run-in with board members concerned Miller’s decision a year ago not to follow the recommendations
of his hand-picked Intercollegiate Athletics Review Committee (IARC). After a three-month examination of UNCW’s financially strapped athletics department and 19 sports programs, the committee recommended elimination of five programs, which would have saved UNCW an estimated $800,000 annually.
That issue started when the committee’s report became public May 15, 2013, stirring angry reactions from affected students, parents and some community residents.
Trustees and committee members were reportedly besieged by phone calls and personal visits. There were organized protests in support of the sports programs proposed for elimination.
Miller, according to sources close to the events, planned to follow the recommendations and encouraged board members and committee members to remain strong in the face of objections, telling them to “show some leadership” and advising “this will pass,” according to one source.
On May 28 – nearly two weeks after publication of the report – Miller called four members of the board of trustees and some senior staff to an impromptu meeting at which he reviewed the committee’s recommendations. He then told them, according to sources, that he sympathized with the student-athletes and had decided to keep the university’s intercollegiate sports programs intact.
The trustees present advised the chancellor that, although the ultimate decision on athletics was his to make, the board should meet at an already scheduled special meeting and discuss the matter.
But he held a news conference on May 30 to announce his decision. The day before, an email went out to trustees outlining Miller’s planned remarks.
“After careful evaluation of the IARC's recommendations and close consultation with the Board of Trustees, Chancellor Miller today announced that UNCW's 19 sports programs will remain active as we examine ways to increase our financial and operational efficiency surrounding Athletics,” the press release about the decision stated.
Miller’s overall handling of the situation did not sit well with some trustees, Pearce said.
“The board was not a part of that decision. They did not know it was going to happen,” she said, adding that the chancellor’s actions created some divisions within the board.
“It was a brilliant strategy, in that it did motivate the troops,” she said about the athletics decision. “But it was probably not the best way to go about it. It irritated some members of the board.”
UNCW faced serious challenges with its athletics program when Miller arrived as chancellor, Iamunno said.
"At his request, a committee of faculty, staff, student athletes, coaches and community members considered various ways to meet those challenges, and eventually recommended to him the elimination of a number of sports programs,” she said in a statement. “After consultation with Trustees, students, university leaders, CAA conference leaders and others, the Chancellor elected to retain all sports programs.
“Not everyone agreed with this decision, but Chancellor Miller is committed to making what he believes to be the right decisions for UNCW. He also issued a call for community support of our student-athletes.”
She said the athletics program “is now on its strongest financial foundation in years,” adding that fundraising increased and a new facilities plan was developed.
Some in the community have said that Miller’s decision to pursue other job opportunities results from a flap following a three-year suspension of the UNCW chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity in the fall of 2012. The chapter was charged with alcohol and cease-and-desist violations.
In response to the situation, state Rep. John Bell (R-Wayne) – a UNCW alumnus and member of SAE – sponsored a bill to allow UNC-system students to have legal representation present during student conduct hearings. The provisions of the act were eventually incorporated into the General Assembly’s regulatory reform legislation passed during last year’s long session.
Bell has previously told the Business Journal
that while some are blaming the fraternity issue for Miller’s job hunt, “other reasons are more relevant.”
Ultimately, regardless of the board’s relationship with Miller, the trustees have no power to dismiss him. According to the UNC-system policy manual
, the authority to hire and fire chancellors resides solely with the UNC Board of Governors, which may act upon the recommendation of the system president.
Members of the community have voiced support
for the chancellor in recent weeks.
A number of area residents and business owners added their names to an open letter
asking UNC-system president Tom Ross, the UNC board of governors and the UNCW board of trustees to consider a number of achievements at the school during Miller’s time there.
“I certainly do thank all the people listed for their concern and support of our university,” Wendy Murphy, current chairwoman of the UNCW trustees board, said in an email this week. “As chair of the trustees, I too, have the best interest of UNCW as a priority. My hope is that the community, as well as all our supporters, will allow trustees to lead with that in mind. We, along with Chancellor Miller and President Ross, will do what is best for UNCW.”