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Learning more about UNC System President Peter Hans

Peter Hans
Gerry Broome
In this May 1, 2018, file photo, Peter Hans, the newly elected president of the N.C. Community College System, delivers remarks during a news conference in Raleigh, N.C.

When Peter Hans was named UNC System president last August, he didn't make a big speech that outlined his vision or detail his personal origin story.

Instead, maybe because of COVID-19, or maybe because it's more in-line with his lower-key personality, Hans released a video in which he spoke directly to UNC employees.

It starts with Hans slowly removing his mask, and speaking directly to the camera.

"We’re facing a moment like no other in American higher education," he said. "A pandemic that has disrupted every aspect of our lives and work. Protests that speak to the ideals of our nation. An economic downturn that will deepen the value of our work while also making it harder.

"There’s never been a more apt time to love thy neighbor, and the UNC System is a very big neighborhood."

UNC System president is one of the most sought-after and difficult jobs in the state. It comes with immense authority, responsibility and criticism. The president is the direct boss of all 17 campus-based chancellors, and — indirectly — is responsible for 48,000 employees and 250,000 students.

Hans is just the seventh president elected since the UNC System consolidated in the early 1970s. Five men have held the job, two women, and no people of color.

Kyle Villemain, the editor-in-chief of The Assembly, wrote an in-depth profile of Hans that appeared on the site earlier this week. He spoke with WUNC about Hans and how he approaches the job.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

You spent a lot of time with Hans, and with people who know him well. What was your main takeaway?

"There's a quote in our piece from Erskine Bowles, a former UNC system president and — paraphrased — he said, 'the higher you go in an organization, the more important your personal and relationship skills are than your technical skills.' And I think the one thing everyone agrees on is that Peter Hans is very good at building relationships and building a statewide network. The question is, does he have what it takes to push through some pretty ambitious policy changes at one of the state's biggest institutions."

There has been a lot of backroom maneuvering, a lot of members doing things that other members didn't know about. And this is while nearly all the members of the board are from the same party, the Republican Party. How will Hans manage such a wide array of personalities on a board like this?

"It is by far the biggest challenge for him, and for any system president for UNC.

"It's a board with a lot of powerful people and folks who are used to running their own show. And you put a lot of the same kind of big personalities onto a board together with responsibility for an institution that a lot of people care about. And it's going to be tough, right? The board has been a little calmer in the last two years than it was in the years prior. It remains to be seen — how much of that is a blip? And how much of that is longer lasting?

"I think Peter's time is going to really illuminate how much of some of the angst in the state was about process and how much was about policy."

Early in his tenure, Hans led a successful push to give himself more power in hiring university chancellors. Many, even some of the Board of Governors members themselves, saw it as a blatant power grab. You asked him about that. What did he have to say?

"His view on it is that it is actually a more transparent way to hire than in the past, when it was done behind closed doors. And you know, there's some validity there, right. In the past, a president could say to a search committee at a campus 'Select this person, or we're going to keep the search process going.' And what Hans is saying is that he is enshrining in statute, in policy, a clear way of doing what has been done behind closed doors in the past.

"The real test is going to be when some of these searches happen, and the quality that he is either able to get or not able to get."

One of the more interesting things I learned in your piece is that Hans has a long relationship with Gov. Roy Cooper. Describe that relationship a little bit and how it's evolved over the years.

"Yeah, it was one of the most interesting parts of this reporting process because both Cooper and Hans spoke very warmly of each other. They've known each other for more than 20 years, when now Governor Cooper was in the Senate and then when he was attorney general. Cooper attended Peter Hans's wedding, the day he was inaugurated as attorney general back in 2001. So it's a personal relationship. It's close. But it's also stood the test.

"There's lots of friendships that fall apart when power and politics come to bear. But I think Cooper made clear in our interviews that he thinks Peter is a disciplined and high-character leader. And it's clear that bipartisan relationship is important for Hans. He's not the only Democrat though, who says good things about Hans. And I think that's also important.

"The past year has been about pandemic response, and it's very much in the trenches. Now we're going to get to some policy that people will disagree on. We'll see how much these bipartisan relationships continue to hold up in this next stage."

One of those policies that's being talked about is merging the community college system with the UNC System. Hans is uniquely qualified to understand both of those systems, having been president at both of them. But it would also mean the 17 UNC campuses somehow aligning with the 58 community college campuses, in what would be a gigantic system — with one person at the top, presumably, Hans.

"You know, he was very cautious when we talked to him about it. He had a long nuanced answer about the pros and cons, and made clear that he was focused on partnerships right now and not a structural reorganization. But this is an idea that is real and is being talked about. And Senator Phil Berger, who's the most powerful Republican in the state, confirmed to us that he wanted to combine both systems."

Peter Hans is 51 years old. I was surprised to learn he was that young; he's been on the scene for quite a while. And he could, given the political climate, be on the scene in this job for a long, long time.

"Almost for sure, he will be in this job for a while — barring something pretty extraordinary happening. You know, his board chair, Randy Ramsey told The Assembly that he sees the potential for Peter to have a greater impact than any leader before him, and greater longevity than any leader before him, other than President Bill Friday, who was there for 30 years or so. And with time, comes the ability to make big changes. If an institution is pointed in the same direction for more than a couple years, that's when things can really start happening.

"And Peter was first appointed to the Community College Board at 27 years old. And he was then on the UNC Board of Governors at 33. He's been in this game a long time. He knows where the levers are. And I think he'll be able to push for some big ambitious things because he does have bipartisan backing currently."

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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