Dr. Larry Nielsen announced that he will step down from his position as provost effective May 22, citing public criticism over his hiring of Mary Easley and recent news articles in the News & Observer that implied he gained his position as provost as a result of political influence.
“The personal stress associated with this situation has simply become unbearable,” Nielsen wrote in a letter to the university community last Thursday. “Also, the embarrassment and distraction that this situation has caused our university needs to end. I hope that my resignation will prove to be the solution to these problems.”
In a press conference following the release of the letter Thursday, Chancellor James Oblinger called Nielsen, “a good and honest person who is incapable of willfully damaging the integrity of North Carolina State University.”
The chancellor has repeatedly stated that no one pressured the university to hire Easley, a former prosecutor with more than a decade of experience as a university law professor. But the media spotlight has taken its toll. D. McQueen Campbell III, chair of the NC State Board of Trustees, resigned Thursday at the request of UNC system President Erskine Bowles. Campbell has come under intense scrutiny by the News & Observer because of his friendship and business dealings with former Gov. Mike Easley and his wife, Mary Easley. Campbell said his continued service on the board would have distracted “from the great work of the university.”
Oblinger said he would convene a search committee and conduct a national search for a new provost. Dr. Warwick Arden, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, will serve as interim provost.
Nielsen served as interim provost from January to June 2005, when he was named provost. Prior to this position, he was dean of NC State’s College of Natural Resources. He will return to the college as a faculty member.
As provost, Nielsen managed new global education initiatives, expanded diversity efforts, created the Pack Promise program to reduce the barriers to higher education for low-income students and spearheaded the consolidation of information technology components across campus. He created the Millennium Seminars in 2005 to bring nationally and internationally known leaders to campus, and hired Easley – then North Carolina’s First Lady – to coordinate the series and teach law-related courses as part of the executive-in-residence program. Last July, Nielsen approved a new 12-month appointment for Easley with four responsibilities:
- Conceive, originate and direct a new Center for Public Safety Leadership
- Continue to coordinate the Millennium Seminars
- Coordinate law-related programming, including conceptualizing and designing comprehensive academic programming for a growing number of pre-law students
- Continue to teach law-related courses in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the College of Management
The new contract generated extensive media coverage. The UNC Board of Governors subsequently reviewed the contract and approved it.
The News & Observer put the contract under renewed scrutiny this month as part of a series of articles on the Easleys. Although the series found no evidence of wrongdoing on Nielsen’s part, the articles implied that Nielsen was appointed provost in 2005 as a reward for hiring Easley. Nielsen called the implication “preposterous.” In a letter to the editor on Thursday, Oblinger said the process of hiring the provost was, “a very open and transparent process.”