In the military, on the ranch or at the state’s largest university, it’s easy to spot the point man. He’s the one up front, in the lead, most visible – not a place for the timid or inexperienced.
In his first 10 days on the job, Chancellor Jim Woodward showed his understanding of what it means to take the point.
In dozens of public appearances and media interviews, he spoke in resonant, reassuring tones: NC State remains strong. Our faculty and staff are dedicated to serving students and citizens. The university will operate with honesty and openness. We will work daily to earn the trust of North Carolinians.
Although he had just 36 hours’ notice, Woodward drew on a career’s worth of preparation. Happily but actively retired, he was living on a lake and serving on 13 nonprofit boards. He and Martha, his high school sweetheart and wife of 53 years, were looking forward to more travel with the family and enjoying a new puppy.
But when the phone call about NC State came, Woodward found he couldn’t say no. Raleigh was the place where he began his public university career as an assistant professor in engineering mechanics. And based on recent experience helping NC State’s Board of Trustees implement a self-assessment project mandated by the UNC system, he felt the university had no problems that couldn’t be overcome.
Before 3 o’clock on the day his predecessor resigned, Woodward had logged his first interview by phone from Charlotte, with the Technician. Two hours later he was still fielding calls from the media with a combination of easy candor and good humor. When asked by WRAL if he was going in to “prop up the Belltower,” he dismissed the idea with a laugh, saying “I don’t think it’s going to need my help.”
His experience, however, was in demand.
First thing the following morning, Woodward walked in to Holladay Hall. Before meeting with executive staff, he mentioned his wife’s parting admonition that he shouldn’t be wearing a gold tie on a campus that boldly declares, “Red means go.” Staff members had a red replacement on hand. “My first official act after entering the office at the institution was to change my tie,” he joked later.
After meeting with executive staff, he tackled a round of media interviews, pledging to be open and accessible.
With 16 years leading UNC at Charlotte, “I know how to be a chancellor,” he told reporters. Before retiring in 2005, Woodward was the longest-serving chancellor in the UNC system. He oversaw 50 percent growth in enrollment, the addition of 13 doctoral programs and a sixfold increase in endowment funds. Woodward Hall, a science and technology building, was named in his honor.
His first campus appearance gave the new chancellor a chance to meet several hundred faculty and staff members at the University Awards for Excellence ceremony that afternoon.
“I appreciate your work and I’m looking forward to being a good colleague of yours over the next few months,” he said after congratulating nearly 50 honorees. Afterward, he took time to shake hands before hustling off to review the budget.
On Wednesday, Woodward dealt with lingering controversy, signing a termination letter for Mary Easley, citing budgetary constraints and legislative funding cuts for programs that had been Easley’s responsibility. It was effective immediately and included no severance package, he said.
He spelled out his thoughts on transparency for university communicators on Thursday, giving them simple directions based on his experience as an instructor at the Air Force Academy early in his career.
“Answer the intent of the question,” he said. “It’s not adequate to answer the specifics of the question.”
Woodward reaffirmed his promise to uphold those standards. “I will not lie to anybody, plain and simple,” he said. “I can promise you that during the time I’m here, I will do something stupid. But I won’t try to cover it up.”
His reputation for candor won’t come as a surprise to the state’s political leaders. Woodward has established long-term relationships – even friendships – with leaders in the capital, having worked with the governor, lieutenant governor, president pro tem of the Senate, speaker of the House and others during his years at Charlotte.
“I know these folks, and I hope they see in me someone they can trust,” he said.
Gov. Perdue, he said, had “left the nicest message.” Pausing a beat, he added, “Don’t worry, she’s not looking for a job,” drawing chuckles from the group.
On Thursday, the day the House completed its budget, Woodward released a statement affirming his commitment to work with the legislature and campus leaders to minimize the impact on NC State. He said NC State had prepared for the cuts by setting the priority of protecting classroom activities and spelling out the principles that would be used to make decisions.
Students organized an official welcome for Woodward this week. Although it was moved inside because of rain, students, alumni and campus leaders were brightly enthusiastic, sensing that storm clouds of another sort were dispersing. Woodward proved a quick study during the ceremony, staying on key during the singing of the alma mater and flashing a near-perfect Wolfpack sign.
Woodward made his first demand of students at the event, urging them to adopt his new Cairn terrier, Mattie Pearl, as the campus mascot. Displaying a frayed photo he pulled from his coat pocket, Woodward proudly announced, “See, she looks just like a wolf pup.”