Erskine Bowles never hid the fact that he was an outsider when he took on the UNC system's top job. He always acknowledged that his was a boardroom mentality.
And five years later, he still freely admits he saw things differently than academics do when he became the UNC president.
As he put it in this story that ran over the weekend:
"I come from a world of ready, fire, aim, and I came to a world of ready, aim, aim, aim, aim. In almost any organization you need to meet the demands of the customers. Universities are almost the opposite. They spent their whole careers doing what they durn well want to. I tried to think about how to meet the demands of North Carolina and its citizens. You can't operate it like a business, but you can operate it in a more businesslike manner."
To hear that, you'd think he wouldn't curry much favor with faculty members, who might take his comments as an insult.
But Sandie Gravett, an Appalachian State University professor who now chairs the UNC system's faculty assembly, said Bowles won their respect by listening. And she points to the UNC Tomorrow initiative as his crowning achievement, a project that made more clear what public higher education really should be doing.
She said in part:
President Bowles never tried to be something he is not with the faculty. If I heard him say it once, I heard him say a million times that he was not an academic. And, without a doubt, much of our world seemed puzzling to him given that university campuses do not function like corporations. He was, however, open to hearing from us, learning about us, and partnering with us. He spent many hours in give and take with the faculty, took notes, and followed up as necessary.