Today, Chancellor Dubois will step down from his tenure as the UNC System’s longest serving president and UNC Charlotte’s fourth chancellor. Dubois was inaugurated as chancellor in 2005 after serving as president of the University of Wyoming. A first-generation college student himself, Dubois dedicated his entire career to higher education, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1972 from the University of California, Davis, and a master’s and doctoral degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He later served as UNC Charlotte’s provost from 1991 to 1997.
Dubois followed Bonnie Cone, president of Charlotte College (1949-1965) and acting chancellor (1965-1966), Dean W. Colvard (1966-1978), E.K. Fretwell (1978-1989) and James H. Woodward (1989-2005). He will be succeeded by Dr. Sharon Gaber, who will take over as UNC Charlotte’s fifth chancellor on July 20.
Under Dubois’ leadership, UNC Charlotte has become the fastest-growing and third largest institution in the UNC System. Since 2005, Dubois oversaw a 43.5 percent growth in enrollment, 20 percent increase in the graduation rate, addition of the football program, development of the light rail and $1.2 billion in construction including the College of Health and Human Services, Popp Martin Student Union, South Village Dining Hall (SoVi), University Recreation Center (UREC) and the center city building, which now bears his name.
But along with the accomplishments came hardships, most notably the campus shooting that left two dead and four injured, the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott a few blocks from the University and a half-semester of remote learning due to COVID-19. Like any long-serving university president, Dubois also weathered his share of controversies, including demands to fire his Associate Vice Chancellor for Safety and Security John Bogdan, protest over the naming of the Jerry Richardson Stadium and, of course, the persistent drop the UNC campaign.
In this interview, Dubois reflects on the ups and downs that have characterized his 15-year tenure. The following transcript has been edited and condensed.
Niner Times: How has UNC Charlotte changed over the past 15 years?
Dubois: Well that may take another hour. I think about it in several categories. Obviously enrollment was the biggest change, and that was planned. We had to slow the rate of growth a little bit during the Great Recession, but the growth was expected. We also developed a lot of new student services that didn't exist 15 years ago, like Niner Central, the Parent and Family Association, the Levine Scholarship, the Veterans’ Center and the Multicultural Resources Center. We wanted to put new services and academic opportunities in front of these students. During my time here we've added 17 masters and 10 doctoral programs and built up our research.
And then we did all these buildings. I always joke that our school colors are green, white and construction orange. In fact, during the Great Recession, some of the only construction cranes in the city were at UNC Charlotte. We've added residence halls, parking decks, several academic buildings, the Student Union and the University Recreation Center. We also added the light rail and we're about to open a new hotel. And then you throw in a few fun things like adding football and creating a marching band.
Honestly, in the next 10 years with the next chancellor, I don’t expect to see as much physical change, but I do think you'll see a good bit of programmatic change as we saw during my time with the new Data Science School. With the growth of Charlotte and the diversification of the Charlotte economy, you'll have new industries coming in with new demands for employees that we haven't even thought about. I think that's going to be the challenge for the next chancellor- to get the facilities aligned to deal with all of those new students and to transition more of our instruction into hybrid and online. I'm still a big believer that coming to campus matters, but I also know that there are going to be limits on how many new buildings we're going to be able to have. And so that for some parts of our instruction, particularly for upper-division students, we need to see more students doing online and hybrid and try to save a lot of our in-person instruction for our freshmen and seniors.
Do you think that's a trend that other universities will tend towards?
I think they are already, like East Carolina. I think hybrid in particular is going to have to be more a part of what we do. About 15 percent of our credit hours are delivered online right now, and I would expect that percentage to rise over the years. But the research is pretty clear that 18 and 19 year-olds don't do very well online because they don’t have the discipline that returning students have. Almost all the students who have come back to us through 49ers Finish (the program for returning adult students) finish their degrees using online classes because they're still working and raising kids. Online instruction for that population is extremely important, whereas for freshmen, maybe not so much.
Well, I know that I'm personally excited about the Data Science School, but are any of these advancements particularly dear to you?
Yeah, I think both the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC) and data science program are ones where I invested a lot of time and political capital. We had to go up to Raleigh at a time when there wasn't much money and we got $77 million to build the EPIC building and $5 million to hire more engineering faculty and staff. That's what they call a heavy lift.
On the physical side, two things really stand out. Surprisingly, football isn't one of them. The Center City Building was really important to stake a flag in Uptown Charlotte and let people know that we were really there. And then the other one was the light rail. I worked on that for 13 years, and the day I got off of the first train was a very emotional morning because that was something I worked on for a really long time. You may not know the train was supposed to go two more miles all the way out to 485, but we had to cut the budget and made UNC Charlotte the last stop. So that was another heavy lift.
As the longest-serving chancellor in the UNC System and one of the longest serving in the country, how have you seen higher education change?
Well, I've been doing this a long time; I started in 1976 in my first faculty position. Over a 40 year period, there have been dramatic changes in the technology around higher education and very significant changes in the students that have the opportunity to study. We see students of different economic backgrounds that we didn't see 20-25 years ago. And I think that's all been for good; it’s made their lives more economically secure. And then of course, changes in campus security, which is huge right now.
The only constant in higher education is change. But you know, some issues never go away. No one's ever going to be happy about parking. I get it. But the students change in their expectations and they change in their approach to higher education. A big change at UNC Charlotte was the conversion from the commuting student population to the residential student population. When Ms. Bonnie was in charge of Charlotte College, we were largely serving people who drove to campus until Ms. Bonnie and Chancellor Colvard built the first residence halls. Over time, as the residential population grew, the expectations of the students grew. So that's why when I got here, we put a high priority on things like the Student Union, the athletic program and the recreation center.
How have you seen the meaning or the value of a degree change?
I think there's all kinds of data out there that would document that a college degree is not only an important accomplishment, but an important element of personal success. People who have some college or a college degree are going to make more earnings every year over the course of their lifetime. College degree recipients are generally healthier than people who only finish a high school degree. They are less likely to go on to social welfare. They are less likely to get in trouble with the law. They're more likely to vote. They're more likely to be philanthropic with their time and their money. When a recession hits, college educated people are least likely to be laid off. I think that's continued to be the case over time. They say that if you were to look down the road 10 years, many of the jobs of the future don't even exist right now. You could've said that about data science maybe a decade ago. The fact is that a college degree, if it's done well, prepares you to learn new things and adapt. That's why it's so valuable.
So you don't think that the value has depreciated as more people are seeking these degrees?
No, not at all. I think about my life and how my dad and mom came out of World War II and they couldn't go to college. I'm a first-generation college student as is my older brother and we were so fortunate that our college degrees allowed us to go all the way and get PhD degrees. My younger brother who passed away about five years ago didn't get a college degree, and he spent most of his life getting laid off from one job to the next. His life was very, very hard and he ended up dying of lung cancer. It's not all due to not having a college degree of course, but it's just a different life.
What do you say to critics who claim that American universities have become solely a means of preparing people for the workforce, rather than institutions focused on cultivating curiosity?
Well, I think we have an obligation to do both. Even in the most structured curriculum like engineering, there are requirements put in place so that engineers become exposed to diversity and different ways of thinking about the world. I think that's always been a tension in higher education. Sometimes we hear just the opposite of what you said: We hear that our heads are in the clouds and we're not getting people ready for the real jobs that exist today. My response to that is that we will not serve our students well if we only prepare them for the jobs that exist today because some of those jobs will go away and there'll be new jobs that will come along that no one's thought of. We have to have students prepared to adapt and take on those kinds of jobs.
How do you feel about you and other chancellors being referred to as “CEOs of higher education”?
I've never really thought about that very much. It is a chief executive role, but it has many, many dimensions to it. I'm amused when business people say that they want to be chancellors or presidents because I don't think they really have a clue of how complicated the job is. If you’re CEO of a major corporation you've got pretty clearly identified constituents, but if you're a president of a university, you've got faculty, alumni, elected officials at all levels, donors, corporations that hire your students, athletic fans and people who enjoy the arts. You've got a system of shared governance. I don't think the average person really understands how complicated the job is. There's not a neat comparison to the chief executive role in the private sector.
You must enjoy your job. What makes the stress of it all worth it to you?
Every day that I come in it's a little bit different. I've gotten a chance to do different things like start programs, build buildings and develop a hotel. Above all things, and I hope this doesn’t sound too corny, but at the end of my time as chancellor, I will have awarded degrees to 96,000 people. That's a sizable city of people who have managed to get college degrees during the time that I've been chancellor, and I just find that immensely rewarding.
So what was harder, graduating nearly 100,000 people or raising three children?
Three children. You know I didn’t get paid to raise my children, and there’s no such thing as weekends or time off! But now I get the fun part of helping to raise the grandchildren.
The NCAA offered to extend scholarships to athletes who felt like they lost a season due to COVID-19. Do you feel like you lost your last season here?
Yeah... we knew the last year was going to be one with mixed emotions. We were going to have difficulty remembering April 30. But my wife and I often talked about this last year as being sort of a victory lap, a chance to say thank you to the many people who made our success possible. Instead, the year has felt like the third turn on the Charlotte Motor Speedway that ended in a fiery crash.
So it's been painful that we have to leave in this kind of environment. I really wanted to leave the University in the best possible shape for my successor, and now we're having to deal with all this crisis management. I'm hopeful that in the fall there can be a campus population again and that we can come back and have an opportunity to say a proper goodbye.
Correction: The original version of this article stated that Dr. Gaber would start her term on July 1, but she will not start until July 20. The Niner Times regrets this error.