Carol Folt, the former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been named USC’s 12th president following a unanimous vote by the Board of Trustees, the University announced Wednesday.
Folt, who is entering USC amid several scandals and lawsuits against the University, will serve as the first female president in USC’s 139-year history. She will replace Interim President Wanda Austin, who was appointed last August.
The University announced the decision to appoint Folt in an email to the USC community Wednesday. At a press conference, Folt said she, along with others she spoke with at USC, are ready and willing to create change at the University.
“Sometimes when you have challenges, you are in the best position to make change,” Folt said at the press conference. “I haven’t heard any voice of complacency … No one is saying, ‘Everything is perfect, don’t tell us we have to change.’”
Folt, a biologist with extensive experience in higher education, will begin her duties July 1. Before coming to UNC, Folt served at Dartmouth University for 30 years as a faculty member, provost and interim president for the school.
“It is the greatest privilege in the world to be a first,” Folt said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “You carry this amazing opportunity to talk about it. But truth: no first comes without thousands of people. I just look at what [Austin’s] done, and I am the beneficiary of all that.”
During her six years as chancellor of North Carolina’s flagship university, Folt faced multiple high-profile controversies. She assumed the position following national news of a long-running academic fraud scheme involving student athletes whose course schedules included classes — which never met in person — to help them fit the academic requirements for playing.
Folt resigned from her position in January 2019. The decision came one day after she approved the removal of a Confederate statue on campus that many students deemed racist.
Folt said the decision to remove the base of a Confederate monument at UNC has given her peace of mind, and situations involving history and nomenclature are often nuanced. Austin recently created the University Task Force on Nomenclature to create a process for students concerned with building names and monuments to submit their concerns.
Folt dealt with multiple internal and NCAA investigations of the athletics scandal and terminated faculty members involved in the incidents. She said her experiences at UNC have prepared her to effect change at USC.
“Honesty, accountability, candor. If the community wants that, we are already so far ahead,” Folt said. “That gives me the chance to come in and take actions that get us there.”
In addition to the college admissions scheme and the class action lawsuit against former campus gynecologist George Tyndall, who was accused of years of sexual misconduct, Folt will assume the responsibility of handling a suit against a former campus doctor who allegedly sexually assaulted over 20 male students, and a class action suit against the University alleging unfair admissions processes in light of the bribery scandal.
At the press conference, Folt said she accepted the position because she wanted to help the University work toward change following the recent turmoil.
“I believe so deeply in what [USC] has done and what it can do,” Folt said at the press conference. “I also have learned that you take on challenges by never forgetting your bigger mission and the good things that happen. It’s that pairing that I think brings the vibrancy. If we have no challenges, it just means no one’s finding [them].”
In a statement to the USC community, Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Caruso said Folt is a leader who will guide the University with students, faculty and staff in mind.
“As I have come to know Dr. Folt and how she thinks, it is clear that USC has chosen a brilliant, principled leader with clarity of purpose and integrity to lead the university forward and upward,” Caruso said in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “Ours was a global search, and we spoke to over a hundred diverse and world-class candidates.”
Folt was selected by the 23-member Presidential Search Advisory Committee comprising Caruso, Austin, Academic Senate President Yaniv Bar-Cohen, members of the Board of Trustees and faculty, along with search firms Isaacson Miller and Heidrick & Struggles. The committee was formed in August.
“There was so much diversity on the search committee, and I was actually very worried about it in the beginning, because to have 23 people all get aligned, and if you looked at the criteria, it was a long set of criteria,” Caruso said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “There was a great sense of camaraderie, there was a great sense of transparency, everybody shared information, everybody had healthy discussions, everybody had a different point of view. At the end of the day, it was unanimous.”
Caruso said Folt was selected from a list of 100 potential candidates, which was narrowed down to three primary candidates during the search process.
“The last three were all exceptional,” Caruso said in the interview. “Obviously, [Folt] stood out for a number of reasons but all [were] really exceptional. And then we had a half-day session to make a decision, and it was unanimous on [Folt].”
Caruso said he hopes that Folt looks to the search committee as an advisory group as she transitions into her new role as head of the University.
The Presidential Search Advisory Committee hosted three listening sessions since September to gauge which values and qualities students, faculty and staff wanted to see in USC’s next president. According to the search committee website, many expected the next president to have cultural competency and experience running a large institution. Those who participated in the sessions said the University needs to increase its transparency and commitment to students. At the press conference Wednesday, Folt said she has listened to these town halls to prepare for the position.
Undergraduate Student Government President Debbie Lee said she believes Folt’s previous experience with controversies at UNC will prepare her to take on the role of USC president.
“I think it’s evident that she has a clear understanding of what’s ethically right, and I think just from hearing a very small glimpse of who she is and what she’s done and what she stands for, it makes me excited to know that she’s going to be leading us,” Lee said.
Graduate Student Government Vice President of Programming Kris Coombs, Jr. said he is interested in seeing how Folt will work to rebuild trust within the USC community.
“There’s been a lot of concern given everything the University has been through, so I am optimistic that she’ll know what to do,” Coombs said. “It will be difficult since there’s so many of us, but that’ll be nice to be able to watch her and see how she takes leadership in a different direction.”
USC community members have called for increased transparency and accountability from the University in light of recent controversies. At an open University Forum Tuesday, several members of the USC community spoke out about what they hope to see in the next leader of the University.
“I feel the president needs to have at least one person whose job it is to look at the president and say, ‘I don’t think this is benefitting students,’” Mark Malan, a member of the Staff Assembly and an accounting technician in the Provost’s Office, said at the forum. “Because I don’t think Nikias had that.”
Daniel Hahm contributed to this report.