Look back at the process that led Kansas University hire Bernadette Gray-Little as its 17th chancellor.
Chapel Hill, N.C. On this 216-year-old campus in the heart of the South, there’s a low-lying stone table atop the plaza grass.
Come to find out, it is much like Kansas University’s newly selected chancellor — easy to overlook but extremely meaningful.
The table’s base is crafted out of more than 100 statuettes of African-American slaves. It is a tribute — from the class of 2002 — to the hundreds of slaves who literally built the campus of the University of North Carolina.
Friends and colleagues of KU’s new chancellor — UNC Provost Bernadette Gray-Little — say she has a similarly interesting story to tell about what she’s built at this history-draped institution.
“She represents the transition of the university and the state of North Carolina in the sense that when she went there in 1971, it was a very different place for women and minorities than it is today,” said University of Richmond Provost Steve Allred, who previously was a fellow administrator with Gray-Little at UNC. “She exemplifies the progress the university and the state has made in opening up opportunities for all people.”
It is quite a story, Allred says. Just don’t expect Gray-Little to be the storyteller.
Without exception, people on the UNC campus this weekend who said they knew Gray-Little described her as calm, thoughtful and quiet.
“Bernadette is not a rock star,” said Joe Templeton, a chemistry professor who also has served as chair of the faculty at UNC. “She’s a rock.”
Gray-Little, 64, is a native of Washington, N.C. — a coastal community of about 10,000 people where the Parks Department not only provides parks but also boat docks for seafarers. But for young black women in the early 1960s in Washington — especially those who wanted a higher education — the route most often used to leave town was a road that pointed north. North was where you found colleges and universities — like Gray-Little’s choice of Marywood College in Scranton, Pa. — that were more accepting of both blacks and women.
“People often ask me if I’m an alum of UNC-Chapel Hill,” Gray-Little said Sunday. “I tell them that was entirely off my map when I was growing up. As a university, that really didn’t exist to me.”
It didn’t for many other young blacks either. In 1963 — a full nine years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation in schools illegal — the freshman class at North Carolina included just 18 African-Americans. Just eight years later, Gray-Little arrived on campus as a young assistant professor in the psychology department.
The University of North Carolina would remain her home for the next 38 years.
During that time, Gray-Little advanced up the ladder, but at a deliberate pace. By 1983 she had become director of the graduate program in clinical psychology. By 1993 she was chair of the psychology department. A half-dozen years later she added the title of senior associate dean for undergraduate education. In 2001, she became executive associate provost.
Then — 33 years after she arrived — she made a full-fledged entry into the upper echelon of the university by being named dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. One of the colleagues she bested for the position was Holden Thorp, who is now UNC’s chancellor after being selected to fill the post following James Moeser’s retirement from the job in 2008.
Gray-Little has been executive vice chancellor and provost — the university’s second-highest ranking position — since 2006.
Until a week ago, she wasn’t sure she was ready to give that position up.
“If you would have asked me two months ago, I still would have been considering it,” Gray-Little said of the chance to become Kansas University’s next chancellor. “That was the case just even a month ago.
“It was early last week when it seemed like it was the right time and the right place.”
Gray-Little was offered the job on Friday. Before accepting, she said she asked herself whether it was the right time in her life, whether KU was the type of institution she wanted to be at, and whether she had the experiences that would make her a good fit for the job.
“All of those pieces had never come together before,” she said.
Professor Ross Leadbetter, while taking a Sunday stroll down Franklin Street — Chapel Hill’s version of Massachusetts Street — is honest about what he knows about Gray-Little. He knows basically nothing.
The only reason that is worth mentioning is that Leadbetter has been on the faculty at UNC since 1966. Leadbetter’s department — statistics and operations research — is part of the College of Arts and Sciences that Gray-Little led for two years.
Maybe that says as much about Leadbetter as it does about Gray-Little. Either way, Leadbetter is not insinuating that it says anything negative.
“I know of no controversy that’s ever surrounded her,” he said.
Indeed, that seems accurate. Other than her job promotions, the most Gray-Little has been in the news in recent years was over a flap regarding a politically conservative donor and plans to expand the College of Arts and Sciences’ Western Civilization program.
Some students and faculty members became upset with Gray-Little and then-Chancellor Moeser for pursuing funding for the program from the John William Pope Foundation. The foundation is led by some UNC alumni who have supported many conservative causes and have criticized parts of the university’s curriculum for being too beholden to political correctness, according to reports from various media outlets in the Chapel Hill area.
Faculty members— 71 of them signed an open letter to the student newspaper — expressed concern that the foundation would be given some measure of control over the new Western Civilization curriculum. That fear arose because the foundation’s proposed financial support was conditioned upon a review of the program after four years.
Gray-Little — who was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the time — strongly denied that the foundation would have any influence over the program’s curriculum.
“I have openly repeated my firm support of academic freedom and made it clear that funders will not be allowed to control or direct the content of our academic programs,” she wrote in an open letter to The Daily Tar Heel.
Eventually, the foundation decided not to fund the program, and the controversy withered away.
Leadbetter said he doesn’t expect much controversy from Gray-Little at Kansas either.
“It would surprise me if she were the stirring person calling the troops,” Leadbetter said. “I would expect her to be quietly doing the things the university wants.”
People who know her well say KU should expect a lot of results from Gray-Little.
Moeser, who is a former dean of KU’s School of Fine Arts, has called her one of the most important administrators in UNC’s history.
“When the history of UNC is written, Bernadette Gray-Little will be an integral part of that history,” Moeser said.
Moeser also said he believes Gray-Little will excel in an area critical to any university — fundraising.
“She not only understands that you have to raise a lot of money, but that you have to raise money for the right things,” Moeser said. “Before you start asking for money, you have to internally prioritize what you should be asking money for. I’m confident she knows how to lead a process inside the university to prioritize the needs.”
But she won’t do any of it by necessarily seeking the spotlight. Moeser calls her a “quiet, steady leader,” whom he has never seen lose her temper.
Instead, Gray-Little seems to have her own way of getting things done that relies less on big words and actions and more on longer-term approaches.
“You will be charmed when you meet her,” predicts Allred, her provost colleague. “And that is not a surface charm.
“She is not someone who walks in a room and feels like she immediately needs to make her presence known. She’s more reserved than some in that sense. She just wins people over by her depth and caring and attention.”