UNC System presidents are a storied lot.

Among their roster sit a former White House chief of staff, a former U.S. secretary of education, and a former foundation president. The most famous is Bill Friday, a man whose name is synonymous with an unabashedly lofty vision for North Carolina, and a beloved leader who shaped a state and built an institution. 

Following in their wake is Peter Hans.

Three of the last four UNC System presidents before Hans held top positions in a White House administration. Hans also worked in politics, but at a lower level. Stints as a congressional aide in the 1990s, and a long tenure as a consultant and registered lobbyist in the 2000s have given him a deep North Carolina rolodex. He’s an operator who knows the state well.

That experience is paired with an unusually long tenure on higher-education governance boards. Hans spent six years on the State Board of Community Colleges and twelve years on the UNC System Board of Governors.

It’s given the 51-year-old Hans the relationships and statewide knowledge for the job. What’s unclear is whether he also has the vision and management ability to lead a $10 billion institution into its next chapter.

Hans isn’t often the center of attention. He’s self-deprecating and quick to laud others. He flies under the radar, even as he helms the UNC System. “He is a very soft-spoken, polite man who is not confrontational and doesn't come off as confrontational,” NC Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian told The Assembly. “And he is quietly and politely securing an awful lot of power.”

Over the course of five sit-down interviews with The Assembly, Hans opened up about his college years at UNC-Chapel Hill, his struggles with depression and anxiety, and his ambitious plans as president, including a previously unreported $97 million investment in online education and a potentially controversial plan to rein in graduate-student debt. 

Over the course of our reporting, which spanned the late summer and fall, the senate’s top Republican, Phil Berger, confirmed The Assembly’s reporting on the potential for a significant reorganization of the state’s higher-education landscape that would merge the university and community college systems under the leadership of one person—Hans. 

This profile is based on more than 30 interviews with UNC System senior staff, board members, chancellors, faculty, and political leadership, including Governor Roy Cooper, Speaker Tim Moore, and Senate Leader Berger. 

Before launching The Assembly nearly a year ago, I was a speechwriter for higher-education leaders, including former UNC System President Margaret Spellings and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt. As a freelancer, I had a one-time contract to write a speech outline for Hans when he was president of the Community College System. Now I lead a digital magazine that reports on those and other institutions. 

Hans is at the center of the tightly knit but sprawling higher education world in North Carolina. He’s likely the last president who will have known each of his predecessors, going all the way back to Bill Friday. 

He’s a leader derided by some as the pliable tool of an overbearing legislature, and praised by others as an empathetic listener and effective executor. He has gotten where he is by making everyone happy. But with power comes friction. No longer a board member or adviser, these days the buck stops with him.

“I think the real test of Peter is will he really stand up for these universities and these chancellors against political pressure?” Paul Fulton, a former member of the UNC System’s Board of Governors, told The Assembly. “I don't think we know that yet.”

After a year of pandemic crisis response, Hans is beginning to act on an ambitious, even transformative agenda. For a consummate behind-the-scenes operator, it will be a high-profile test of execution. 

***

At Hans’ wedding, appropriately held at the Carolina Inn in January 2001, was the newly inaugurated Attorney General: Roy Cooper.

“We had a great time,” Cooper told The Assembly with a laugh. “It was a bipartisan wedding. Many more Republicans than Democrats, I would say.”

Hans and his wife later separated, ultimately divorcing in 2017. But his political relationship with Cooper held fast. An announcement involving Hans, a Republican, is one of the few things that can reliably get North Carolina’s Democratic governor and his two political antagonists atop the State House and Senate behind a lectern together.

“Clearly, he understands and excels at politics,” Cooper told The Assembly, “but he cares more about the policy that you can help influence, once you are successful at politics.”

Bipartisanship is central to Hans’ pitch. His long stints on the governing boards of the community college system and the UNC System happened largely under Democratic control of government. His time as a consultant, and for three years as a registered lobbyist, was in partnership with Dennis Wicker, a former Democratic lieutenant governor.

“He can see around corners better than anybody I've ever seen,” Wicker told The Assembly. “He always looked at it so that we could move it forward.”

“I think it's sort of a skill set that I thought Bill Friday had,” continued Wicker. “He could navigate the political waters very well, very calmly, and stay out of the fray. And I think Peter will follow the same mold.”

Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff and UNC System president, agreed. He pointed to the contentious early 1970s as the UNC System consolidated and reorganized. 

“Friday found his way through,” Bowles told The Assembly. “Totally unsolvable, but he found the way ... Peter definitely has that skill.” 

Hans is a private man. When I told him I was having trouble getting a handle on “outside-of-work Peter,” he laughed. 

“He’s dull,” he said. “Work Peter is way more interesting ... I’m pretty deeply introverted when I’m not very busy.”

Hans takes a long international trip every year, alone or with a friend. The second floor of the president’s house is filled with paintings of places he’s been: nearly 70 countries by his count. Last month he traveled to Yellowstone, his first trip since the pandemic hit. His original itinerary, a long-planned trip to Malta, Sicily, and Tunisia, was derailed by travel warnings.

Hans has struggled with depression and anxiety throughout his life.

At a private roundtable with Western Carolina University’s leadership in July, Hans was asked about the pandemic’s impact. “I’ll tell you, one thing that continues to concern me is the mental-health toll.”

“It's really hard,” he continued. “And as someone who's actually struggled over my lifetime with depression and anxiety, I have a window into this that maybe others may or may not. So it's close to my heart.”

With the governor’s help, the UNC System has diverted $5 million to provide students with 24/7 access to ProtoCall, a call-in service designed to provide immediate crisis support. As last month’s tragedies made clear, and as Hans readily acknowledges, more support is needed. 

Hans hasn’t spoken publicly about his own battles. His statement in July felt like an intentional step: he knew The Assembly was in the room. 

“So many of our students, but I think even beyond our students, their mental health is—the situation is taking a toll on them,” he later told The Assembly. “And I just want them to understand that I feel it too, as somebody who's dealt with it.”

***

Hans grew up in Southport, a coastal town forty minutes south of Wilmington. “A very small, sleepy town at the time,” he recalled. “I'll never forget when we got a Roses [discount store] in Southport. That was just the biggest deal.”

When he was in the sixth grade his family moved to Horse Shoe, an equally small mountain town outside of Hendersonville. His staff joke that he’s just the right mix of east and west.

The son of older parents, Hans has five half-siblings from his parents’ previous marriages.

“Fourteen years different than my youngest half sibling,” he told The Assembly. “And I always knew whether I was in good stead or not, because I was either a ‘surprise’ or a ‘pleasant surprise.’”

The somewhat rebellious yet bookish Hans was encouraged to apply to college during his junior year of high school. He left early, then used college credits at UNC-Chapel Hill to retroactively graduate high school.

His time at Carolina was a culture shock for him. His parents were straightlaced and conservative; coming from “modest circumstances,” Hans mused, they didn’t have “the luxury of rebellion.” When he would receive his allowance, his parents would have him record each dollar in an accounting ledger.

Hans, a first-generation college graduate, had never been to summer camp, much less a college town like Chapel Hill.

“I remember all the students from Raleigh and Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston, just being so far ahead of me academically, that made a real impression on me,” he said. “In fact, the first semester, I failed a math class. I didn't know what was going on. I was homesick.”

When he was named UNC System President in 2020, his student days at Carolina made headlines; as a student he had been involved in an effort in 1988 to defund the Carolina Gay and Lesbian Association. When The Daily Tar Heel and others pressed the newly appointed president on the subject, he declined interview requests and never directly responded.

When I asked him, he paraphrased a quote from Muhammad Ali: “Someone who doesn’t change their thoughts from the time they’re 20 to 50, wasted thirty years of their life.”

“There’s this Niebuhr quote: when you’re unsure, that’s when you’re doubly sure,” he told The Assembly earlier in the interview. “I think [it’s] characteristic of a lot of college students to feel passionately about things. And yet, that might be the moment at which you're trying to think through it.”

So what was Hans doubly sure about in college? “Certainly my faith and my political leanings,” he said. “And to have those challenged was good and healthy.”

But Hans is still clearly a conservative. Raised during the Reagan years, he entered politics just as Newt Gingrich was preparing to change the very nature of partisan politics.

His most formative political job was with Senator Lauch Faircloth, a Democratic hog farmer–turned–Republican politician with a larger-than-life personality. Faircloth, as The Washington Post wrote, “never was a devotee of subtlety in public discourse.”

“He gave me way too much responsibility at a very young age, which was a great way to learn,” said Hans, before recounting stories of Faircloth’s work in that post-war North Carolina era—the Sanford and Hunt years, the paving of farm-to-market roads, the big-tent Democratic Party monopoly.

Faircloth was known for intense fights with city leadership in Washington D.C.—Congress exerts significant control over the city—and for often appearing as “a Central Casting lock for the role of the Dixie Republican,” wrote the Post. “[But] Faircloth's image rarely squared with his record these past few years,” argued the paper, before detailing examples of the senator quietly ensuring additional aid and funding for the city he lambasted. 

Hans didn’t inherit his former mentor’s habit of verbal bomb-throwing. But he may have absorbed a lesson about the difference between public grandstanding and private action. 

Hans would go on to work for several members of North Carolina’s federal delegation—Richard Burr, Elizabeth Dole—and then settle into a role as a state-level advisor with Wicker. 

It was a career defined by Republicans’ lack of power in North Carolina: work with Republicans nationally, or be bipartisan at the state level. But by 2010, a shift was well underway. Republicans took control of the General Assembly and for Hans, it ushered in a whole new world of opportunity.

***

What’s striking about Hans’ time on the state’s higher-education governing boards is just how early it started. He joined the State Board of Community Colleges at 27. He joined the UNC System Board of Governors at 33.

Tim Moore, the current Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, was another young appointee. A college friend of Hans’, Moore was appointed to the UNC System Board of Governors the same year Hans joined the Community College Board. 

“What I realized at that age and at that stage,” Moore told The Assembly, “was, there were a lot of things I did not know that I did not know. So I learned a lot from those folks who were leaders of the university back at that time.”

Brent Barringer, a Cary lawyer, joined the UNC System Board of Governors the same year as Hans. They were two of the youngest appointees in state history. 

“Peter was smart enough to ask his questions before or after, but not during [the meeting],” Barringer told The Assembly, describing Hans’ approach to being the new kid on the board as “cerebral, thoughtful, and deliberate ... he was always behind the scenes.”  

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Even at such a young age, Barringer said, Hans showed a unique talent in building bipartisan working relationships.

Those relationships were also what helped get him on the board in the first place. He and Barringer were competing with others for the Republican senate caucus’ nomination to one of the few minority party slots on the board, recalled Barringer. The caucus selected a former Republican minority leader who had long been a thorn in the side of Marc Basnight and Tony Rand, then the two most powerful Democratic Senate leaders. 

So instead of advancing her nomination, Basnight listened to his nephew, R.V. Owens, with whom Hans had quietly built a strong relationship. Owens recommended Hans, and his uncle agreed, placing the 33-year-old on the state’s most powerful board.

Once named, Hans would show an ability to work on dry issues, most notably helping champion a boring but consequential revamp of the “comprehensive articulation agreement” that governs transfers between community colleges and UNC System schools.

He would show an ability to make friends. “Peter’s a very likable guy, he's certainly not hard to get along with,” said Fulton, Hans’ opponent in a 2012 race for board chair.

And Hans would continue to win the support of powerful politicians. In 2015, UNC System President Tom Ross, a Democrat, was pushed out in an unprecedented-for-North-Carolina partisan changing of the guard. 

Berger, the Senate’s top Republican, pushed for Hans to take Ross’ place. The board instead picked former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

“When I would talk to individual members of the Board of Governors,” Berger told The Assembly about that 2015 selection process, “I told them that I thought he was the right guy. And they made a different decision ... I think folks just made a bad decision.”

“I think the search committee and the board made the right choice,” Hans told The Assembly. “Margaret's wonderful. It was a pleasure to work with and for her.”

Spellings soon brought Hans onboard.

“I hired him to be a consigliere, a senior advisor,” Spellings told The Assembly. “Somebody who knew the ropes in North Carolina and knew the politics. To both of our credit, it worked very well.”

She recounted a time early on when she sent Hans to “suss someone out” as she worked to understand the lay of the land. Spellings recounted that Hans came back and said, “Margaret, I gave him a really hard listen.”

“And that sums up Peter,” she told The Assembly. “He's a shock absorber, he's a listener, he's a conciliator. He's someone who tries to bring people together in as low friction a way as possible—and, you know, move the needle.”

Hans would stay for two years before leaving to serve as president of the Community College System. Spellings would leave after three years, the result of an increasingly toxic relationship with her governing board.

Some argue that her relationship with the legislature never recovered after their choice was ignored. In 2017, the year after Spellings took over, more than a third of the board that selected  her had either had reached their term limit or were passed over for reappointment.

Hans was named UNC System President in August 2020. His appointment wasn’t the worst-kept secret in higher ed, but it was close. Announcing the news were the state’s three most powerful leaders.

Hans, they said, was the right person for the job.

***

North Carolinians have an especially close relationship with their higher-education system. 

“I am so grateful to live in a state that takes those fights seriously,” said Hans at a Board of Governors meeting in July. “A place where the content and direction of higher education are front-page news and objects of major public concern.”

It’s an outstanding system, ranking near the top of the nation in many metrics. It’s unusually diverse, including five HBCUs, an eclectic mix of regional schools, a world-class arts conservatory, a powerhouse land-grant university, and, of course, UNC-Chapel Hill. 

The close ties to the state extend to policy and funding. The state ranks eighth nationally for per-student state funding at its public universities. That funding comes with strings, including a long-standing board policy limiting the number of out-of-state students. 

Nationally, higher education faces a demographic cliff, with the number of college-age students stagnating or even declining in many states. The demographic is still growing in North Carolina, but by the late 2020s and 2030s the trend line is expected to be level or even slightly declining. 

Enrollments are still growing at most UNC System institutions, with just one university experiencing declining enrollment in 2020. And on metrics like graduation rates, achievement gaps, and research productivity, the System can point to multiple years of steady improvement. But the UNC System is far from being on a glide path to future success.

The big question in higher education today is what issues to prioritize. Should it be issues of teaching and research—faculty pay, the cost of tuition, financial aid, or better student support? Or should it be more philosophical questions—freedom of speech, academic freedom, and campus orthodoxies?

“I joke with [Guskiewicz], that's the hardest job in the system—although, any particular day, I'm giving that a run for the money,” Hans told The Assembly, speaking of his conversations with UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. 

Over the past decade, the UNC System hasn’t enjoyed a reputation for making these tough jobs any easier. 

“Major in the majors” was Hans’ predecessor Spellings’ constant admonishment to her board. Hans says he relies on the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Since the departure of Ross, UNC System presidents have dealt with an ever-changing governance board.

Lou Bissette served as a calm chair early on, but struggled to handle a fiery new set of board members—the “roaring tigers of reform,” in the words of former board member Steve Long. 

By 2018, Bissette was out and Harry Smith was in. The very embodiment of a disruptive leader, Smith led an equally disruptive board. Depending on your point of view, they were either shaking up a stodgy bureaucracy or tearing apart a beloved system. Spellings left in early 2019.

By the summer of 2020, the board had changed yet again. Some of its most notable bomb-throwers, including Tom Fetzer and Bob Rucho, had stepped down. So too had Smith, replaced by Randy Ramsey.

Today, Ramsey runs the board with a strong hand and public deference to the process and to the president. “I believe President Hans has got an opportunity to do as much or more for the university system as any of the leaders before him have,” he told The Assembly

Long, the former board member, is skeptical. He told The Assembly he’s worried that current leadership is too cautious and doesn’t want to “upset the applecart too much.” Long praised Hans for “high character” and “competence,” but noted that Hans “was not my pick.”

He cited an ongoing examination of student fees. “They're going to have to upset some people,” explained Long. “And I don't know if they're gonna do that.” 

But while some might fear timidity from university leadership, others in the state fear aggressive action. Waves of protest have been directed toward the board over a mix of process and policy concerns, including allegations that the board has undermined the independence and mission of the university system.

The Coalition for Carolina is the latest effort to rally alumni to the cause and push for policy changes around university governance (Hans called the organizers “well-meaning.”)

Similar complaints have come from the governor. “Republican legislative leadership has broken university governance,” wrote Cooper this summer. 

“We need to find a better way to have more variety of people and entities appointing trustees and university board of governor members,” he told The Assembly this summer. Diversity in race, gender, and political thought, argued Cooper, “can help stop a board from acting on its worst impulses.”

Before 1999, written rules required such diversity, but legal issues forced a transition to a gentlemen’s agreement instead, one that would fall apart over the ensuing years. Today, all appointment power ultimately lies with the legislature after Republicans stripped the governor’s remaining ability to appoint trustees in 2016.

“You know, I don't think there's any question that if I’d had appointments to the boards of trustees, that we could have avoided some of these issues,” Cooper told The Assembly.

The issues Cooper referred to, including the fight over Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure, are part of persistent criticism toward the UNC System for an inability to effectively address issues of race. Among Hans’ leadership team, just one of eight members is a person of color. The UNC System Office did commission a task force last summer that led to some policy changes, including for campus policing. 

For now the legislature is firmly in control. And at the helm—managing, facilitating, and listening—is Peter Hans.

***

Kitty Hawk, the UNC System’s big bet on online learning, hasn’t been in any of the budget proposals. The governor didn’t include it. The senate didn’t mention it. Nor did the house. 

But provided a compromise budget comes out in November, all parties, including the UNC System, expect there to be $97 million in funding for an effort that officials hope significantly transforms how the UNC System approaches online education. 

“I think some other universities perhaps embraced it a little earlier than we did,” Moore told The Assembly.

“I think there's been a realization that we need to work very hard to make sure that the university's online presence can be successful,” Cooper said.

In 2019, more than 60,000 of the roughly 127,000 North Carolinians who took online higher-ed classes took them with an out-of-state university like Liberty, Strayer, or Southern New Hampshire. Hans and the UNC System want to keep more of those students. It also wants others, particularly adult learners, to come off the sidelines and complete a degree online. 

So it’s building a separate non-profit entity—an “OPM” in higher-education parlance—to host online programs for UNC System institutions, specifically geared toward low-cost undergraduate degrees. 

This is not the first time the UNC System has had big thoughts on online education. An effort to create an entirely online “18th university” imploded internally in 2018. The plan would have created a direct competitor to existing universities at just the moment that enrollment growth was slated to constrict. In contrast, Kitty Hawk is designed to strengthen each existing university’s ability to capture new revenue and enrollment.

“We've seen some significant high-profile failures in this space,” said Andrew Kelly, the system’s top policy strategist, speaking of efforts in other states. “And so, on some basic level, we’ve benefited from the lessons of those other efforts.”

But even $100 million won’t make the idea foolproof. Building a technology product is hard, and online education can be a contentious topic. Hans has an executive director in mind, but no contract has yet been signed. 

“I don't know that we're gonna do a lot of press or ‘Wow, look at us,’” Hans said. “These things take a little while to get in place.”

***

Kitty Hawk is the clearest sign yet that Hans intends to swing big during his presidency. But it's far from the only one. 

In September, Hans delivered his regular remarks to the board. Near the end, he mentioned The Debt Trap, a buzzy new book currently making the rounds. A lot of the nation’s exploding student debt, Hans said, is “driven by questionable programs.”

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There’s good and bad student debt, Hans argued. Debt is good when it’s followed by a useful degree. But when the degree has little to no return for the student, that’s bad debt.

Hans ticked off a few drivers of bad debt: schools with low graduation rates, predatory for-profit colleges—and, he argued, certain graduate programs. 

And Hans isn’t just a book reviewer. “I think we've got a responsibility, particularly as a public institution, to take a close look at what we approve in this area,” he said. “And potentially, if I had my way, to actually go back and do a little bit of assessment of our current offerings in this field.”

It has some resemblance to an argument by a former governor that higher-education funding should be “not based on butts in seats, but on how many of those butts can get jobs.”

Hans disagrees with the comparison. “This is not the [Pat] McCrory argument,” he emphasized. With an undergraduate degree “you’re learning how to learn,” said Hans. But “if you’re going deeply into debt for a graduate degree,” students should expect a return on their investment.  

Few would argue that graduate programs shouldn’t have a return; the trick is how to evaluate that. “We're trying to figure that out, with that level of nuance,” said Hans. “It's not ‘We just train you for a job,’ or ‘It's about the philosophical pursuit and the public good.’ It’s both.”

Hans intends to push, not just for more transparency or stricter program approval, but also for adjustments to the System’s funding formula for academic programs; the complicated 12-cell matrix that governs how enrollment dollars flow to different programs. It shapes how billions of dollars are used. Try to change it, and backlash inevitably ensues. 

He told The Assembly he’s “very informally” started conversations with board members and chancellors, but no decisions or firm plans have been made.

“We've got a limited time on this earth,” he said, acknowledging the likely push-back. “Might as well try to make a difference.”

***

Before becoming president of the largely decentralized Community College System in 2018, Hans had never directly run an organization. So when he took over the UNC System job, the most pressing question was whether he was ready for the size, scope, and challenge of the institution. 

“The higher you go in an organization, the more important your people skills are, and the less important your technical skills are,” Bowles told The Assembly. “He’ll have the people skills and the political skills to navigate through it. ... It remains to be seen if he has the toughness.”

A number of observers, both on and off the record, made some form of comparison between Friday, who died in 2012, and Hans. And while it’s true that both men have shown similar qualities of political savvy, relationship-building, and careful plotting, Friday stands out in at least one major way. 

Early in his tenure he unilaterally made a highly unpopular decision, canceling the Dixie Classic holiday basketball tournament in a bid to curtail unchecked college sports in the wake of a major scandal. History judges him well for it, but at the time it was a significant political risk. 

To date, Hans has yet to make that kind of against-the-grain decision. What he has done is signal his intent to reassert the System’s central role to North Carolina.

A long-discussed “all funds budget” will give top decision-makers more visibility into how money is being spent across the system. A consolidation of a fractured and inefficient financial-aid program is finally underway. A review of “delegated powers” will illuminate what levers exist at the campus level, and who has their hands on them. 

The upcoming budget is expected to have an unprecedented $2 billion in repairs and new construction. Full funding for new enrollments, modest but substantial staff and faculty raises, and full funding of the under-noticed but highly ambitious NC Promise tuition reduction program are all serious wins for the university system. 

Those moves and priorities range from widely supported to mildly contentious. One of Hans’ early decisions, however, was fiercely debated. 

Chancellor searches have historically started with a slate of names sourced from a campus search committee, passed to the campus Boards of Trustees, and eventually sent to the president. The president then selects one to be chancellor, and the system board approves or rejects that individual.

In September 2020, Hans pushed through a change to this process. Now the president could select up to two people that would be required to be on that initial slate. 

Critics, including some sitting board members, were outraged. The change would allow the president to ensure a hand-picked choice from the start, and some argued it would make a mockery of the process: Who would apply if they knew the president’s choice would likely sail through?

Now, almost a year later, Hans doesn’t regret the push. “It was the right move,” he told The Assembly. “Could have been explained better.”

“If the president is responsible and accountable for the chancellors, the president needs more of a say in their selection,” he explained. 

He argued that the new process is a move toward good governance, saying that past presidents used to push their desired pick with behind-the-scenes threats and cajoling. “I would say this is far more transparent than that,” argued Hans.

“If you send me a better choice, then we'll go with that choice,” he said. “Now, that does require a certain amount of trust in me. But nobody's more incentivized than I am to make the right choice, not only for the system, but for the campus.”

Hans committed to disclose if he selects a chancellor through this new process. “If I was to actually select [that candidate], then I would make it clear after the selection that yes, I had,” he told The Assembly.

While Hans granted The Assembly several interviews, he has not been known for radical transparency as president. Some board meetings will end without a press conference, and some statewide debate will pass without a public statement. (Hans’ staff says he’s been open and has given recent interviews to WRAL, The Washington Post, The N&O, and WUNC.)

But public presence aside, he has one asset that will remain foundational: the backing and support of state leaders.

"Peter has done a great job and will continue to do so,” Speaker Moore told The Assembly.

“Considering the circumstances that he walked into, he has done a good job,” Cooper said.

“One of his strengths is finding ways to unite people on difficult issues, and that's going to be a harder job than ever going forward," Cooper added. "He's definitely going to continue to be put to the test."

Crises of trust, communication, and political wrangling coalesced this summer as fears spiked among faculty that Guskiewicz, the UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor, would be forced out.

At the time, Berger told The Assembly, it was “an open question” whether UNC-Chapel Hill’s leadership could right the ship, echoing his public statements over the summer.

The crisis ebbed. But it’s not resolved. “I've certainly said this to Chancellor Guskiewicz,” Hans told The Assembly in late July. “Chapel Hill needs to get better and smarter at managing big controversies.” 

***

It's an odd twist of history that the UNC System president’s house on Franklin Street, just a few yards from campus, is closer to UNC-Chapel Hill than that of the university’s chancellor, whose residence lies down the hill, backed up against the UNC System headquarters. In earlier years, leaders went so far as to make it a contractual obligation that presidents live in the Franklin Street house. 

The close ties Friday built between the UNC System and UNC-Chapel Hill have eroded somewhat, but remain part of the towering legacy he left after presiding over the system’s consolidation in 1971.

This month, the System is marking the 50th anniversary of that momentous transformation. But it wasn’t a clean or especially elegant moment. It was messy and rife with factional debates.

The first transformation came in 1931 as UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC Greensboro, and NC State merged under one administration. In 1971, the modern UNC System emerged as it reached its current 17-institution footprint.

Will this decade hold another wave of reorganization? 

Today, Jim Blaine is a Republican consultant whose clients include the UNC System. But in 2018, he was chief of staff to Senator Berger, and he arrived at a meeting of MyFutureNC, a statewide education coalition, with a big idea.

In his hand was a trial balloon from the Senate Leader’s office: What would happen if the Community College System and the UNC System reported to the same person? What might consolidation look like?

The organizational chart he passed around wasn’t an unprecedented idea. Texas has a higher-education coordinating board over its two- and four-year institutions; New Jersey has a single Secretary of Higher Education. 

But North Carolina is different. The UNC System and the Community College System are wholly separate, with different governance structures, styles, and objectives. That separation leads to friction and barriers for students. Experts widely agree that better alignment would serve students better. 

A merger might begin to fix some of those issues. But reconciling the differences between very locally led community colleges and a complex shared governance system at four-year universities would certainly present significant difficulties.

The devil would be in the details.

I asked Berger if a reorganization of the higher-education system and a merging of the two-year and four-year systems were still a priority.

“I think there's a need,” he said. “One of the things that we have in the Senate budget is the initial plan for funding for a structure that would incorporate the community college and university systems.

“If we get them all in one building,” he continued, “maybe we can get them into one organizational structure.”

Did he think Hans was the right person to lead a consolidated structure?

“I think so,” said Berger. 

Hans told The Assembly he was focused on partnerships, not structural changes. And he was more circumspect on whether a merger was appropriate.

“I don't know that I have a definitive answer to that,” he said after a long pause. “And you would think, of course, if somebody would, it would be me—you know, having been president of both systems.”

Hans began to weave his way through a lengthy technical answer about the challenges such a move would present. 

“If we were starting the university system and the community college system from scratch—today, 2021—it would look different,” he said. “But the amount of investment—and I'm talking not just financial investment, but emotional investment—is not something to be taken lightly.”

It was the kind of answer you’d expect from someone known for giving a hard listen. If Hans and legislative leaders pursue that kind of disruptive transformation, the quiet operator will need to earn the trust of a state that will be closely watching his every move. 

*** 

Kyle Villemain is editor-in-chief of The Assembly. Email him at kyle@theassemblync.com

Disclosures: Prior to launching The Assembly, Villemain was a freelance speechwriter and worked with UNC-Chapel Hill and the nonprofit Higher Ed Works. In February, 2020, he helped write a speech for Peter Hans while Hans was president of the Community College System. 

Previously, Villemain was a full-time speechwriter for Margaret Spellings at the UNC System, and for Carol Folt at UNC-Chapel Hill. 

Assembly contributing editor John Drescher provided oversight and editing for this piece. 

Two people closely involved in higher education are investors with The Assembly: Erskine Bowles, the former UNC System President, and Eric Linwood Johnson, a freelance speechwriter who works for national higher ed groups and state-level institutions including the UNC System. Johnson was an early supporter of The Assembly and a work mentor to Villemain.