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The Sammy Whammy

By Jenny Callison, posted Jun 6, 2014
(Illustration by Mark Weber)

Gary Miller’s announcement this week of his next career step resolves one large issue hanging over University of North Carolina Wilmington. But as the chancellor looks ahead to his new assignment as head of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, his current institution is contemplating a lengthy and challenging to-do list.

As the news of Miller’s selection by the Wisconsin school closes a period of uncertainty about his future at UNCW – Miller officially resigns July 31 for his new job – it ushers in a period of interim leadership that will also involve the university’s second national chancellor search in four years.

Meanwhile, Sammy the Seahawk is dazed by the uncertainties that result from a loss of high-level administrators. By the end of its fiscal year June 30, UNCW will also see the exit of three other administrators: Charles Maimone, vice chancellor for business affairs; Larry Clark, dean of the Cameron School of Business; and Rebecca Porterfield, Cameron’s graduate associate dean.

Arriving this summer is Aswani Volety, the new dean of UNCW’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Also on Sammy’s mind: continuing disagreements fueled by new legislation regarding students’ rights to legal representation for conduct code violations, the improving but still-uncertain fiscal health of UNCW’s athletics program and the potential effects of yet another round of budget cuts from the state – Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year calls for a further $49 million cut to the UNC system. 

Challenges posed by issues like these beg for consistent leadership from the head of UNCW, several observers noted. A number of sources from within the university and the system have said that Miller’s arbitrary leadership style, his disagreements with members of UNCW’s board of trustees and, more recently, his job search, have made the issues more complex.

Businesses can face similar problems.

“When a board hires a CEO you want the leader to make tough choices for the benefit of the organization overall,” Dallas Romanowski, business advisor at Cornerstone Advisory Partners who describes himself as “a proud UNCW alumnus,” wrote in an email. “It’s fairly common to see organizational turnover because the culture can change, and the current team may not be the best fit for the new direction. It’s highly unlikely you can please every constituency when moving forward on a new course.” 

When leadership is compromised, Romanowski suggested, support for the organization can be affected. He said he’s learned that news of the chancellor’s job search sparked division in the community among those who support Miller and those who do not.

“Both groups have leaders who have positively impacted our community, and I have tremendous respect for both sides,” he wrote. “With this division you will likely see an increase in support on one side and a decrease in the other. While the university’s Advancement office could probably make a calculated estimate on which donors will give more, I would avoid making a hiring/firing decision for that reason alone.”  

The impression that skirmishes are taking place within UNCW governance could well have a damaging effect on giving, sources also have said.

Former UNCW trustee Linda Upperman Smith is one example. In an email to UNC system president Tom Ross in May obtained and reported on by WECT, Smith wrote, “I will not blink twice about reclaiming my father’s endowment and sending it to my father’s alma mater, ask to have my father’s name removed from the university, and cease my fundraising efforts on behalf of the university if the direction of this board continues to have negative implications for the campus.”

Smith did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Romanowski, whose firm offers organizational management and executive coaching expertise, spelled out what he believes to be the main responsibilities of a university chancellor and university trustees.

“The main purpose of the chancellor’s role is to make the university stronger by (1) Earning the will of his/her team; (2) Communicating clearly and wisely; and (3) Holding team members accountable for results,” he wrote. “The board’s role is to not only evaluate the leader using these three tenets, but also provide recommendations on how the leader can improve in these three areas.”

He suggested a possible scenario in which Miller and the trustees could have forged a productive working relationship.

“The current situation is not productive, but if the board of trustees and the chancellor could have pushed a ‘restart’ button and come up with a plan to address current concerns, it could make the university stronger,” Romanowski said. “Often the best advisors and leaders are those who have overcome adversity by being humble enough to admit mistakes and take action to improve.”  

Now, however, the task facing UNCW is to undertake multiple leadership searches while still focusing on its primary mission: providing a comprehensive education for its students.

Maimone’s departure will be a major loss for UNCW, several sources have said, especially because he understands the intricacies of accounting involved in public-private partnerships, such as UNCW’s MARBIONC Center. The vice chancellor for business affairs – effectively the institution’s CFO – is taking his acumen to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he will fill the same role.

“Charlie Maimone often ‘provided the glue’ in helping to pull together matters associated with new UNCW initiatives,” Clark wrote in an email. “A strong team remains, but he will be missed.”

Max Allen, the chancellor’s chief of staff, affirms the presence of a “strong team” in business affairs.

“We have a deep bench of qualified people who can step up … and who will continue to make excellent things happen at this university. And we’ll be starting a search [for Maimone’s replacement] in the near future.”

Members of the business community as well as others at UNCW say similar things about Clark and Porterfield’s departure from the business school – he to become chancellor of Louisiana State University-Shreveport and she to become dean of the business school at Northern Kentucky University.

“Larry was an ex-officio member of my board, my mentor, my go-to guy and the SBTDC’s lifeline to the university,” said Fran Scarlett, director of the Small Business and Technology Development Center office at UNCW.

She said Clark had assured her that Porterfield – with whom Scarlett had also worked – would probably be named interim dean, but then the news broke that Porterfield was also leaving.

Both Clark and Porterfield will be missed “tremendously,” said one longtime associate of the Cameron School.

“It’s a double hit. Both are going to better opportunities, but they are leaving big shoes to fill,” said Dick Verrone, one of the founders of the Cameron Executive Network and an executive-in-residence at the school for 17 years.

Verrone said Porterfield helped establish the Cameron Executive Network, a group of retired business executives who mentor business majors, helping them with personal and professional development. She also created the Cameron School’s international studies program, which involves having students complete internships as part of their study abroad experience, he said.

“She put UNCW on the map; we’re known throughout Europe,” Verrone said.

With the naming of associate dean Rob Burrus as interim dean of the Cameron School, Scarlett and others know who’s taking the reins.

“Cameron will be fine. Rob Burrus will be a very effective leader as dean,” Clark said. “He will be supported by a strong faculty, dedicated staff, engaged mentors and a very supportive executive advisory board.”

Allen voiced similar belief, and said that Burrus’ selection followed an “open dialogue and discussion” with the Cameron School faculty and advisory board.

Scarlett said she was looking forward to working with Burrus but noted that the advent of any new administrator can be anxiety producing.

“You’ve got to start from scratch,” she explained. “An organization that had a solid footing [with the former administrator] has to rejigger itself. Everyone is trying to figure out how to make themselves known to the new person in a way that does not seem self-serving, so they see you as an ally, as adding value.

“Change is always going to be there,” she said. “We have uncertainty, but in entrepreneurship, you have to be adaptable. It’s a chance for the organization to look at itself and its unique value proposition. We have to develop our rocket pitch and articulate it to the new person.”

Gabriel Lugo, a professor of mathematics and president of UNCW’s Faculty Senate, said it was essential that the university continue to focus on its main job.

“We are the long-range stakeholders, and some of us have been here for decades,” he said of the faculty. “We will continue to do our job of providing students with an excellent education regardless of current challenges.”

In an emailed statement written before the announcement of Miller’s departure but after the other departures were known, Lugo said: “In spite of the unprecedented challenges that we are facing presently at UNCW and more broadly in higher education, at the spring 2014 commencement ceremonies, UNCW conferred five doctoral degrees, 336 Master degrees and 1,940 undergraduate degrees. Of these, 110 students graduated with honors and a much larger number with distinction. UNCW has the second-highest graduation rate in the UNC system and the most recent survey shows that six months after graduation, over 93 percent of these students are employed or pursuing higher degrees.”

Romanowski is among numerous UNCW alumni who have affirmed the value of their education and their loyalty to their alma mater.

“I graduated from UNCW and have always supported the university any way I could, regardless of the current leadership,” Romanowski said. “Leaders will come and go. Sometimes for the better; sometimes for the worse, but all in all it’s the institution I support, not an individual leader. Hopefully our donors will view this the same way.”

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