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UNCW Chancellor Reflects On Progress

By Jenny Callison, posted Oct 15, 2021
UNCW Chancellor Jose Sartarelli announced his retirement recently but plans to continue to work on the goals he set for the school until his last day. (Photo by Michael Cline Spencer)
With less than nine months until his announced retirement date of June 30, UNCW Chancellor Jose Sartarelli continues to work on an ambitious agenda of projects.
At the top of his to-do list is an ongoing effort to build enrollment at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, one of the goals he articulated soon after donning his Seahawk wings in 2015. The university now has almost 18,000 students.
The corollary to building enrollment is retaining students.
“It’s been frustrating; we have not been able to get to a 90% retention rate; we’re at 87% now,” he said. “We would like to get to 90% and keep it there.”
The chancellor also looks forward to the launch next fall of a new degree program in intelligent systems engineering, which will encompass software development, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence.
“I have wanted to start up engineering programs here,” Sartarelli said. “There had been many attempts to do that, notably in 2008 and 2009. We started our Bachelor of Science in coastal engineering two years ago. It was the first such program in the country at the undergraduate level.”
Sartarelli has his fingers crossed that the N.C. General Assembly will approve UNCW’s request for $56 million for the renovation and expansion of Randall Library. Such a project is overdue, he said.
“The current library was last restored in 1987, when we had 5,000 students,” he pointed out.
One of the chancellor’s immediate goals when he took the position in 2015 was to create a strategic plan for UNCW that would become a “living document,” subject to periodic review and adjustment. He brought to this effort experience gained through 30 years in the global pharmaceutical industry and five years in university administration.
The plan, unveiled in March 2016, laid out five priorities: attract the best, diverse global talent; educate students well and advance research; enable students to succeed; engage the world; and fund the vision.
UNCW has received about $450 million from the state legislature to help fund the university’s improvements and facilities expansion. That total will rise to more than $500 million if that $56 million for Randall Library materializes and, in Sartarelli’s view, will position the university well for the next 15 to 20 years.
In the areas of student selection and support, there has been significant progress, according to the chancellor. UNCW continues to rank third in the UNC system – behind UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State – in terms of SAT scores, which most recently averaged 1277 out of 1600.
The strategic plan also focused on attracting more students in certain categories, including freshmen, transfers, graduate students, international students and military personnel. That has happened, Sartarelli said.
“We’ve done very well with our graduate students; we’re up to 3,500 or 4,000 from the 1,500 we had in 2015-2016,” he said. “We’ve done okay on transfers – we’re at about 2,000 this year. And our incoming freshman class, we hit an all-time high of 2,435. Our goal was 2,500, so we got very close. “
We’ve made a lot of progress on attracting international students. Our goal was 1,000, and we got to 800. I would love to have more.”
Enrollment of international students – like many matters at the university – has been affected by COVID-19.
The pandemic, however, has not had a chilling effect on new programs.
“When I arrived, I wanted to start several new programs; now we’re close to 20,” Sartarelli said. “We just got a $2 million grant for our new cybersecurity major.”
Cybersecurity is one of two new Bachelor of Science degree programs – the other being intelligent systems engineering – approved for the university this past summer by the UNC Board of Governors. When they debut in the fall of 2022, UNCW will be the first institution in the UNC System to offer these programs.
UNCW has bolstered its portfolio of master’s degree programs – notably adding one in film studies – and has begun offering doctoral degrees in nursing practice and in psychology.
“At the start of 2019 Carnegie [the Carnegie Classification, a framework for describing institutional diversity in higher education] came out with a new classification: ‘Doctoral Universities: High Research Activity,’” the chancellor said. “We earned that distinction, and it was a dream come true. While this goal was not included in the strategic plan, I had had that in the back of my mind all along.”
This year, UNCW has received $13.6 million in research grants, its highest amount in the past six years, said Sartarelli.
Speaking of the future, what does it hold for the chancellor once he retires?
“We’ve bought a house in Naples, Florida, and are expanding it; it should be done in the next two months. So we’ll be moving to Naples. I’d like to get on some boards. I’d like to travel more, particularly to Brazil to visit family. I haven’t been able to do that for two years. And I want to write a book about my learnings in 30 years in business and 12 years in academia.
“We’ll miss Wilmington and our friends here, but we want to experience Florida. We have mango, avocado and citrus trees in our backyard there.”
The chancellor also has another wish for the nearer-term future, after all the difficulties he’s guided UNCW through, including Hurricane Florence in 2018 and the pandemic.
“One thing for me,” he said, “I would like to have as normal a spring semester as possible.”
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