A Conversation with Chancellor Miller

William C. Hawks, graduate student in the International MBA program and intern for Marketing and Communications, sat down to talk with Gary Miller after the announcement of his appointment as chancellor of UNC Wilmington. Following is that conversation in its entirety.


UNCW Chancellor Gary Miller What attributes does the ideal Chancellor possess? Which ones are your strengths?

This is a transformational time in American higher education, and I think that leaders who have broad hands-on experience as university faculty and administrators and those who are engaged in the national discussion about the future of higher education really have the best chance of succeeding. I think these are particular strengths of mine. I think that what I need to do is bring my strengths from my work in higher education to the particular culture and traditions and aspirations of UNCW… and try to figure out how to leverage them there to move the university forward with the help of everybody else.

What in your career, whether purely academic or simply life experience, made you the best person to be UNCW Chancellor?

There are many professional, personal experiences that prepared me for this position, but the thing I really come back to more often than anything else is the way in which my own undergraduate experience at William and Mary changed my life. I was exposed, really for the first time in my life, to the whole range of ideas: political ideas, religious thoughts, cultural nuances, different kinds of people, intellectuals who were passionate about their particular fields. I realized that here is where I could find out what I was all about and what I could do, what I could contribute, who I should be friends with, who I should learn from, and it was quite frankly the most transformational experience in my life. What is important to me is building environments where students can experience that same kind of transformation as they go through their higher education experience at UNCW.

How would you describe your leadership style?

What I want to do, what I strive to be is a leader who can articulate a compelling vision, and one who empowers people to work together to achieve that vision. To me, that means leading with integrity, having a deep commitment to openness and transparency and embracing creativity and constructive change.

Your academic background in biology is a great fit for this University… but what created your interest in spiders specifically?

My research career has always been driven some overarching questions, more than an interest in a particular organism. I have worked with fishes and birds, invertebrate animals, even plants, but I became interested in spiders because I was really fascinated with certain kinds of behaviors related to reproduction in animals. Spiders, because they see so well and they have multiple ways to communicate; chemically, through sound, through vision and so forth, they make great models for studying animal behavior. Once I started studying them, I realized I really do love the creatures. I think that I would just have to say that I am fascinated by them and I think that they are some of the most extraordinary animals on earth and it’s hard for me to imagine, everybody doesn’t agree with that. I also like snakes a lot too, and I am pretty sure most people don’t agree with that one either. While I started working with spiders because they were a great model for my questions, I am actually fascinated with them now.

How can UNCW benefit from your academic research (spiders specifically)… are there any lessons you learned that are transferable to managing our community?

I doubt there is much about the actual study of spiders that is going to inform what we are going to do at UNCW, but I am a biologist and I appreciate the strong scientists at UNCW and the efforts for sustainability that the University is making.

In your acceptance speech you talked a lot about a conversation that needs to be started with all of your different constituents. Why are these conversations important?

One of the characteristics of American higher education is that we believe in discourse, in engaging with each other in ideas to generate creativity and solutions. We are faced with unprecedented challenges, and frankly, routine technical solutions probably will not resolve these challenges. Somewhere in our conversations we will reveal to ourselves what the future is, and we will know what to do with it. This is a time where we have to rely on our strengths. Our strengths are this discourse, testing ideas, understanding the forces that change institutions in moving the university toward the future. So, the conversation I’m talking about is a university community conversation about what we are going to be, and it is one that is probably more important now than it has ever been.

What communication platforms will you be using to “start the conversation?” Do you Twitter? Do you Facebook? YouTube? Blog?

I think it depends on who we are trying to engage in the conversation. I feel an obligation to understand all of these platforms and how they work and who uses them. I would say it is still up in the air as to which ones I will use. We have three grown children, and they use all of these platforms. I know that that is the way they communicate with each other, and I know that’s the way students communicate. I expect that before it is over I will be participating in all of these. I have used Twitter accounts in the past, and I would definitely consider that. Video, we have used quite a bit of video at WSU to communicate our message. So, these are all platforms I am very interested in using in the appropriate way.

What is your vision for UNCW?

You know a vision is something we have to develop together. One of the things I wrote in my cover letter with my materials when I accepted the nomination for this position was that I expressed a vision that UNCW would be a university that is fully engaged as a community partner, organized with a global focus, recognized for superb student centered undergraduate education and research, and committed to diversity. I think this turned out to be pretty expressive of the core values of this institution. We will re-commit to the core values of UNCW, and then together we will develop a vision. It is important to understand what a vision is. It is not a slogan or a brand, it is a narrative. It’s a narrative about what the future of the institution looks like, about the core values of that institution, and a narrative that envisions some steps to get to that future. And that comes from the conversation that we discussed earlier.

At the end of your first 100 days, what do you hope to have accomplished?

What I would hope we would accomplish in the first 100 days is that we would be pretty far along in understanding how the core values which are so important to this institution shape the future of this institution. That’s our vision; the first 100 days we would be developing a vision. So that whenever any of us talk about UNCW we are talking about that future and how we are going to get there. I hope it will be recognized by everybody; Alumni will recognize it, people on campus will recognize it, anyone who has contact with UNCW will recognize it.

What do you believe makes UNCW a “unique” institution?

This is an institution that is clearly and unmistakably committed to what I express as this “magic” among high quality faculty and staff and students. UNCW is a relatively large institution with a national research profile that is able to fully embrace the importance of the student faculty/staff interaction, which is a really unique characteristic for a public institution. It’s very, very exciting. In fact, when you start thinking about peers for UNCW, you have to find universities that are like this, and for a university that size, there aren’t many.

From what you know about UNCW so far, are there areas on which UNCW needs to focus?

I am still learning about UNCW. One of the things I find unique and exciting is that this institution is highly self-reflective and forward thinking. There are a lot of well-developed ideas out there about the university’s strengths and where it might need some work, and I am not ready to talk about those yet. But, I’m impressed that the folks on campus are talking about that in a very professional, forward thinking way, and this is something that is very unique in American higher education today. There is not a lot of defensiveness at UNCW, just a lot of commitment to get better. I think we want to continue the core values of the university; commitment to learning, commitment to engagement, public service, diversity, globalization. I am not in a position yet to talk about the nuts and bolts and the strengths and weaknesses, but there are a lot of people on campus who have given a lot of careful thought to this, and that’s very encouraging.

Is there anything that you believe UNCW needs to stop doing? Any flags that jump out at you?

No flags that jump out now. It’s not inconceivable that together through this conversation that we will discover some, but that is not something I am prepared to say right now.

What new initiatives do you want to start at UNCW?

There is an extraordinary opportunity to build on what Chancellor DePaolo has done there. The university has had extraordinary leadership and enormous achievement and one of the things that we definitely want to do and make sure we do is that we build new initiatives on this foundation of strength. I think we can easily do that. The initiatives that get us there are those started by really creating people in the university community working together. What I hope to do is be a catalyst for that kind of creativity. I think it is too early for me to suggest specific initiatives, although I have some in mind that I want to talk to folks about and I know that Tom Ross has some initiatives in mind as well at the system level that will be very important to UNCW. I can tell you that there will be some exciting new initiatives and I can see some of them emerging now and they will build on what Rosemary has been able to do there with the great faculty and staff.

What are the major differences between your last University and this one? Similarities? How do you take what you did there and apply it here?

I have had the opportunity to work in a lot of different institutions but most of my career has been in institutions that are similar to UNCW, highly residential institutions with strong core liberal arts programs, professional schools and faculty research programs. Wichita State University is a very different institution than University of North Carolina Wilmington. It is an urban research institution, it is a high research institution, fewer students live on campus, there are large transfer adult populations, and that particular experience, at least the campus part of that, is not directly relevant to what is happening in Wilmington. However, there are a lot of attributes of urban institutions that do apply. For example, at Wichita State we have an enormous community engagement operation and I know this is a core value of Wilmington and I can bring my experience at WSU to Wilmington. I think in many ways, some of the strategic challenges that were listed for the chancellor; increasing student diversity, thinking about how to do e-learning, continuing to reach out to the community, understanding the relationship between research and economic development, these are all things that are really at the core of urban research universities in America so I think those things are translatable. There are a lot of other similarities; we run banner, we have the same kind of financial systems, we have pretty much the same administrative organization, and facilities challenges. I’ll bring all of that experience to this university, but I really like what I see there in Wilmington. Beautiful campus, well kept facilities, I like the residential orientation of that campus very much and I think that is an opportunity to interact with students more and so those are some of the differences and similarities.

It seems the move to a position of Chancellor was something you pursued well by interviewing at various places… why were you so ready to move to that position of leadership, and more specifically, what was it about UNCW that made it the right fit for you and you the right fit for it?

The UNCW position is really a dream come true for my wife Georgia and me. It is the kind of university like I mentioned before that transformed my life, and it is in a state that I am familiar with. I have a brother who lives in Durham, and Georgia’s family spends a lot of time every summer in North Carolina. And, UNCW is in one of the finest education systems in the country, having a national reputation for excellence. I think I bring the right suite of experiences to it. Why UNCW? Because it is among the very best in the country at understanding itself and getting ready to move forward in this difficult time.

I knew as an undergraduate student that I wanted to commit myself to higher education; I always wanted to be a faculty member. Once you commit to an enterprise, whether you are a physician or lawyer or accountant, you want to do the best you can to make as great a contribution as you can. So at every step, Georgia and I looked at what we were doing and asked ourselves if we could make a different kind of contribution if we tried to take the next step. Close family and mentors encouraged me to think about making a contribution at the CEO position. We very carefully over a period of time looked at some positions, and this one was just such a great fit for us – a place where we wanted to live with a kind of trajectory that this institution has, an international reputation, a wonderful faculty, outstanding staff, and of course this system. So I am very excited about having the opportunity to make a contribution in higher education at University of North Carolina Wilmington. I think that this is where I can make my greatest contribution.

You are coming in at an incredible time of flux… budget concerns, construction projects, new look to our athletics department, new master plans, a vice chancellor leaving to work for the Department of Education – how difficult will it be to move your vision forward when there are so many things “up in the air”?

These are all opportunities! The budget crisis and the doubt about the current economic condition pose difficult challenges, but they pose real opportunities as well. Actually, I think the senior leadership team at UNCW is remarkably stable. There are some changes, but the planning process is incredibly solid, and there is a fundamental commitment to the student learning experience. So I actually don’t see this as a transition where things are up in the air on campus. I see it as a transition where we have an unusually large suite of challenges and opportunities before us, and it seems to me like we have the right people there with the right outlook to get moving on those.

At a time of fiscal restraint, how do you go about providing faculty and staff opportunities for professional development, so they keep pace with or stay ahead of the incredibly fast-paced learning curve of a global economy and a technology-based society? How can you develop your people and, more importantly, motivate them, despite budget cuts and no raises for several years?

This may be one of the most important questions that you asked. One of the reasons that American higher education is so resilient through difficult times is that the people working in this field are so committed to what they are doing. They absolutely believe in the promise of education, and they act that out every day in their interactions with each other and with students. Unfortunately, that can only go so far. There has to be some kind of material support provided to faculty to continue their growth to reassure them that the enterprise is going to go forward. Our staff need professional development opportunities as well. The answer to that at UNCW awaits our conversation about the future; we have to understand how to nurture the human capital on campus, because our faculty and staff make UNCW the special place that it is. We are going to wake up every morning thinking about that and go to bed every night thinking about that because this is a very people intensive enterprise, that’s what makes it work, creative people. I wish I had the answer right now, but we are going to find it!

Another result of budget concerns is that more and more students are attending institutions that are either more affordable or closer to home, and then transferring to their choice school after a few years. How do we better serve this transfer population?

Transfer students are very important, and they’re becoming more and more important in American higher education. A large percentage of our graduates every year have more than 15 hours of transfer credit. I think that we have to be able to accommodate them. I will be thinking about the conditions under which we welcome transfer students to UNCW and their part in the future of this institution. I have a lot of experience with transfer students. My experience at three different universities with transfer students is that they do just as well as native students, but they require a different kind of structure on campus, so we have to be sensitive to that.

UNCW has an international and national reputation, and we will always draw from around the country. You just have to look at the large number of students applying to get into the institution to know that we have what a lot of people believe is a great world class education. We have to decide as a community, how to make that available to transfer students too, and how that meets and works into our philosophy of what we are at UNCW.

Students who have a couple options – great community colleges and maybe online resources – are trying to optimize their budget. What is important to them is the transferability of classes. We can’t blame them for trying to save. We either have to say we don’t want to support it, or figure out how to make it work so we actually educate people for the 21st century. I will say that universities in North Carolina are a real bargain. There is some real value there for not a lot of cost when you compare the tuition levels and so forth around the country.

On the same line of thought, more professionals are coming back to school as graduate students as a result of the economic situation. How do we serve this graduate population?

The graduate program at UNCW is strong, and I have had conversations recently with the graduate dean and others about it. It is something I would suggest we need to think about more strategically. You asked about initiatives earlier, and that is one I feel pretty strongly about. We need to think about the graduate program not just by itself, but how it supports undergraduate education and the research program. That is not an unusual challenge. Public research universities of the size of UNC Wilmington have to re-evaluate both graduate education and research because of the rapidly changing environment for research funding. That is a real opportunity for us to look at graduate education. UNCW is an institution that needs to provide graduate education and professional education in the right way, and I am very committed to that.

Our last Chancellor focused much of her effort on creating, “the most powerful student learning experience,” and that took us from serving regional needs as a university, to being a university of choice nationally. Clearly, her priority has been spending time with students. Prior to DePaolo, Chancellor Leutze was (and still is) very involved in the greater Wilmington community. As a new chancellor, what will be your focus? What kind of influence should the UNCW Chancellor have on the southeastern North Carolina region?

Well I think both Chancellor DePaolo and Chancellor Leutze understood that great universities are great inside their regions and states, not isolated from them. I think what they brought to each of their chancellorships were their own strengths, and I will do the same. I am very interested in students. I want to get to know them in their lives, and I want them to have opportunities to see what we do in our lives. But I am also very interested in faculty and staff. I had a very formative faculty experience. I believe faculty and staff are really the creating force that has made American higher education what it is. Georgia and I are very committed to the community. The University of North Carolina Wilmington, the city of Wilmington and the southeastern part of North Carolina are going into the future together! I will choose to work closely with all of those areas as we move forward. I couldn’t tell you what I would be like, but it will emerge, and it will probably be something different than the other two, but I hope will be just as effective because they were both very effective chancellors.  

You talked candidly about the benefits of bringing your wife with you as a partner. How does she fit in with the things you believe need to happen to make UNCW better?

I have a wonderful family and a loving wife. I think that is a value that the community of Wilmington will respect and I want students to respect it as well. That’s a personal feature that I wanted to share with that community because she and I have agreed to do this together. She will not work for the university but she will be definitely an asset for the university. Georgia herself really has a wonderful history and life of service; Service to primarily people who are underserved and she brought a lot of business skill to this and was very successful with it. One of the things I feel very strongly about and I know Rosemary DePaolo does too, is that one of the things we need to instill in our students for the 21st century is this deep commitment to service. These are very fortunate young men and women who are going to college, they will have wonderful lives, and I believe that for them to think about giving back to their communities is something we want to entrust with them and urge them to do. I think that Georgia is a great exemplar of that, so I want people to get to know her for those reasons as well. You know, she is a great, great, person! She loves communities, she loves people, and she loves students. So, I couldn’t control myself I needed to say that to everyone.

FOOTBALL? Your last university actually stopped its football program a couple of decades ago, and there has been some pushback/questioning why Wichita State can’t have football again. UNCW students and prospective students always talk about how different UNCW would be if we had football, including attracting different types of students, if we could offer them a football tradition. What is your opinion about the impact football has on an institution!

You know I have worked at two universities that have gotten rid of football. Wichita State got rid of it long before I came, and University of Pacific stopped football a couple years before I got there. That university had a pretty big tradition. My office at WSU looked at a 30,000-seat football stadium. I will not hide from anybody that Georgia and I are huge college football fans. The football question is a hugely complicated one. What I am really interested in right now is Seahawk athletics as it is. I think we need to make sure that we have one of the finest athletic programs in the country, meeting the values of this institution. We will move slowly on thinking about adding to that program. Mid-major conferences spend way more money from their own pockets on football than BCS (Bowl Championship Series) schools do. It is a question of other sports; you can’t just bring a football program on without bringing other sports because of Title IX, so there’s an obstacle there. We are faced with an economic situation right now where we haven’t been able to give pay raises to key people, and we are trimming the budget.  The question of football is one that I anticipate, but is not something I would suggest is prudent to think about at this point. No one is ever going to be satisfied with that answer, and I understand that. We had people at WSU that want football and continue to want it. We actually studied it twice, and we know what exactly the short- and long-term costs are, and it just can’t be done.

A lot of universities are focusing on assessment and measurable objectives when it comes to learning. How do you think “learning” should be measured?

I think that we are obligated now to measure learning. I think the accountability movement in higher education is at the point where we have to show learning has occurred. I think most universities appreciate that some sort of outcomes measuring strategy, particularly in the general education program is a necessity now a days, and is actually a tool that can help us determine how we are doing.

I think what’s important is that we commit ourselves to objectives and outcomes, and that we fit the outcomes to our educational mission and we measure them routinely, and that we feed that back on how we operate. The crediting agencies want us to do that, the public wants us to do that, I think industries and people who hire our students want us to do that, and I think in the end students will appreciate it.

It’s complicated, but UNCW knows this. If you look at their materials and what they are doing, they have a clear sense of what contemporary assessment is about and how you do it. It will come out in the facts review as a strong suit for the university I’m sure.

When I applied to UNCW they asked me, “What does being an engaged learner mean to you?” How would you answer this question?

What I would like to see is every student understanding that they are basically learning all the time. Being an engaged learner is using the world as your classroom. I think students actually do that now. If you look at the way students are connected, the way they are out there on the internet. All those millions of questions that are issued to Google every day, somebody is trying to learn something. One of the challenges in higher education is to leverage all that learning and channel it into structuring thought, developing reasoning patterns and critical thinking and so forth. An engaged learner is one who is learning as part of living. Everything they do is a learning experience.

How do you stay abreast of student needs and concerns?

I talk to them. There are a lot of ways, but the way that is the most fun is to interact with them and just get it from them. There is a huge national discussion about student needs and a large literature, so a lot of people make it their career to understand what students need and what they want and what their feelings about life are. Of course I read all that literature, but, having read that, the best thing to do is to spend time with students and get to know them and understand what they think about. Remember the students at UNCW are basically the same age, but I’m getting older. I think it takes more and more intentional effort on all of our parts as we go through our careers to stay in touch with students. That interaction gives me great joy and it is one of the things I am really looking forward to.

We are gaining recognition as a surf school… do you surf? Any activity you look forward to now that you are on the coast?

I love the coast! I do not surf, I mean I can body surf, and I am not opposed to trying surfing. One of the things about Wilmington is that it is on the beach. It is a great town in a wonderful coastal area, and I think it is perfectly OK for us to leverage that as a great place to come and learn. I love the ocean. One of the best things in the world to me is to be on the beach. I like the beach in the winter, which a lot of people don’t. I think it is just real dramatic, and there aren’t many people out there. I am really looking forward to being in the coastal area.

In your acceptance speech you talked about a “belief in learning and discovery represented by magical interaction between students and teachers.” Can you give an example of this “magical interaction” that you have witnessed in higher education? What does “magical interaction” really looks like?

Witnessed? I lived it! That’s what happened to me at William & Mary. The reason I got involved in ecology was because of an interaction with a very young anthropology professor, a cultural anthropology professor. I was taking a course and I had to write a lengthy paper about the culture of the high Andes. He asked if I had ever taken an ecology class. And I said, “No.” I think I was a sophomore at the time. So, he pulled a book off his shelf which was an introductory to ecology book and he said, “You should consider some of the techniques in this book as a way of thinking about the culture of the high Andes.” I could not figure out what he was talking about until subsequent conversations revealed that what he was thinking about was a matter of currency really. In fact, what I learned later was that the mathematics of economics and ecology are basically the same. That interaction is what got me interested in ecology. Where else in the world can that happen, but at a University. It is just almost magic! It is something that I have always marveled at. And whenever I get in a situation where I was a faculty member, I always look for chance to have an interaction like that with a student. Where I could just by saying one thing, get that student, get her to look at the world in a different way. That’s the magic of higher education in America to me.

In your acceptance speech you talked about UNCW having “soul.” In what ways does UNCW have “soul?”

I think that some institutions have a spirit, a deep philosophical sense of themselves that you can sense very quickly. A lot of institutions don’t have it. It was clear to both Georgia and me when we got here the first night, talking to administrators and faculty, that this is an institution that has a deep feeling, a deep spirit about itself, that comes out in the way people talk with each other, the way they treat each other, the way they talk about the institution, the way they talk about Wilmington. That is really important to me. One of the reasons I love this opportunity is because spirit means energy, it means creativity, it means commitment, and this institution has it. You can feel it when you are on campus. In fact, people in general administration of the UNC system feel it too when they are down here. They mentioned this to me. I can’t put my finger on it, but I’m pretty sure it has to do with all the people at UNCW and their commitment to the place.

When you finally step down as chancellor of UNCW someday, what do you hope or expect to have accomplished here at UNCW? What do you want your legacy to be?

I hope this university will be an unquestionable leader in American higher education – undergraduate and graduate education. I hope that we can leverage and understand it as a coastal institution, for all that metaphor implies. What I really want people to think about when I retire is that he had some of the best people in the world that came and worked there with him and some of the best students and together, they created a very special place.

Closing Remarks?

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