Exit Interview: Chancellor Sartarelli Reflects On UNCW Career

By Jenny Callison, posted Jun 20, 2022
UNCW Chancellor Jose Sartarelli retires June 30. (File photo)
Chancellor Jose Sartarelli, who took the helm of University of North Carolina Wilmington on July 1, 2015, is set to retire June 30. He will be succeeded by Aswani Volety, whose appointment was announced last month.

Sartarelli sat down in early June for an exit interview with the Greater Wilmington Business Journal. Here are a few of the questions he answered:
GWBJ: In an interview last fall about your pending retirement you said you wished for a “normal final semester” at UNCW. You apparently got your wish.
Sartarelli: "We tried to do a 'normal' semester every semester during the pandemic but weren’t able to. Spring semester of 2020 we had to send people home March 23 and immediately went online. Our summer 2020 term was online. We tried to come back to a normal schedule in the fall of 2020 but had some major difficulties. Some people living on campus had to de-densify, and we sent many students home. Classes were mainly online.
"At the beginning of 2021, we decided to see if we could do a normal spring semester, but we couldn’t do it because the delta variant was showing up. Then came fall semester of 2021: We really tried to go normal on that one and probably increased face-to-face classes to almost a normal level. The first part of the solution was dedensification. The second was testing. We did significant testing [of students, staff, faculty] – 3,000 to 4,000 per week. It was not a normal semester, but we learned a lot. Testing works if you extricate people, isolate them, quarantine them and then bring them back. Katrin Wesner-Harts, the director of our Student Health Center, is just terrific. Our approach was not just to test, test, test but also to vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate.
"When we came to this semester, the [COVID] numbers were coming down. We prepared ourselves, and I would say things were pretty normal in several respects. Some activities are not happening, but people working remotely are starting to come back and we are incentivizing them. Students are in a much better position: The infection rate is much lower this semester.
"All along, I knew that pandemics never last more than two years, comparable to the Spanish flu pandemic. This time, we got vaccines – they were so critical. I received my first vaccine in January 2021; I’m now on my fourth [shot].
"In February we had a special graduation for students who graduated in 2020. We had a super-normal graduation ceremony in May. There were so many people and so much excitement." 
GWBJ: Universities – and by extension, their leaders – play a significant role in the local community. Can you reflect on that?
Sartarelli: "The UNC system has had a strategic plan with some specific goals. Two of the nine goals are to attract more low-income students and more rural students. We [at UNCW] have done well in increasing our number of students from rural areas and low-income families. Two others of those nine goals involve graduating those students: We’ve done well there too. That’s a very upfront, clear way of impacting the community big-time.
"Another way to impact, and think we’ve done well there too: We have initiated or helped industries grow. We have over 30 CROs in the Wilmington area, in great part because we have a terrific program in clinical research that has been creating and feeding opportunities in that industry.
"The hospital here has 2,500 to 3,000 nurses – a lot. Those nurses rotate out at a rate of about 400 a year: They retire, get fired or leave. We have the largest nursing school in the state now – about 3,000 students. Our nursing program helps the hospital select 400 nurses a year. Plus, you go to every doctor’s office in the city, There’s always a nurse. We influence and help the community.
"We also have become a center for fintech. Those three companies, Live Oak Bank, nCino and Apiture, now have employed close to 1,500 people. The information I have been given by them is that 400 to 450 of those people are UNCW graduates. With our computer science, business analytics, finance, accounting and data science programs, we have been helping fintech big-time. We’re now creating a program in intelligent systems engineering and a bachelor in cyber-security too. Cyber security is the job in America with the highest demand, and we are the only bachelor’s degree in cyber security in the state. You need to create programs that address needs in the region: this is a very practical, very powerful way the university and the community interact and help grow the local economy."
GWBJ: Any proudest achievements from your seven years here? 
Sartarelli: "Two things I’m very proud of: one is our ascension from 'regional university' to 'doctoral university.' People don’t realize how important that is. Since I have been here we’ve gotten 20 new programs approved.
(NOTE: Chancellor Sartarelli has garnered approval from the UNC system for four new doctoral programs during his seven-year tenure. They are a Ph.D. in psychology, a Doctor of Nursing Practice, and newly approved Ph.D. programs in pharmaceutical chemistry and applied coastal and ocean sciences. These four programs joined two longer-standing doctoral programs in educational leadership and integrative, comparative and marine biology.)
"The other thing I’m very proud of is that we were able to start an engineering program, coastal engineering, here. UNC-Charlotte has a big engineering program with close to 5,000 students. I started from scratch [to get approval for engineering]; there was a lot of opposition: the UNC system was against it. But we were successful and in the future, we hope to add space engineering and software engineering. These will be subspecialties; demand [for them] is through the roof. Having engineering here will be transformational.
"In the past seven years, we have made $615 million worth of improvements. On top of that, we also have gotten $70 million more from the state because of enrollment growth. We are going to complete our capital campaign with over $100 million. So that’s more than $770 million in seven years.
"Our capital improvements consist of 23 new [projects], from parking lots to a baseball batting facility, a softball stadium and a coastal engineering building with a wave tank imported from the U.K. We built a sound stage and Veterans Hall, the biggest building on campus. There’s a new dining hall and four new buildings to house 814 students. Now we’re renovating the library.
"Since 2009, UNCW has grown 40%; we’re the fastest-growing university in the state, adding about 500 students each year."
GWBJ: What are the most important traits or qualities you brought to academic leadership from your career in the business world?
Sartarelli: "Coming in from the world of business where I worked 30 years, my definition of a leader is someone who works hard, has empathy and likes people. If you don’t like people, don’t try to be a leader. You also need passion and the ability to envision the future. You have to have ideas and imagination: Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge.
"I am a believer in ideas. The Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship does some of that: How do we perfect it?
"Two things that help people succeed are the right attitude and initiative. And attributes that are important but personal for me are integrity and ethics. If you don’t have integrity and ethics, you can be a leader, but not a good one.
"A lot of that I got from working for three global companies: Eli Lilly, Johnson & Johnson and Bristol Myers."
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