As chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Carol L. Folt ordered the removal of a pedestal that once held Silent Sam, a bronze Confederate monument on campus that had been toppled by protesters.
It was praised by some as a brave act of defiance against racism in a Southern state where the law protects such monuments and conservative Republican political appointees govern the state university system.
But for others such as Jerry Wilson, a black graduate student at the university, Folt’s decision came when it was politically safe: the day she announced her resignation. Weeks before a crane came for the pedestal in the dead of night, Folt had presented a decidedly less bold plan to build a $5.3-million history center to house the statue in a less prominent place on campus.
On controversial issues, Wilson said, Folt was a cautious chancellor who tried to please everybody.
“As a leader in the university, that might give you job security,” he said, “but it won’t make you beloved by your students.”
As she becomes the new president of USC, it remains to be seen whether Folt, who describes herself as a deliberate decision maker, will be an aggressive crusader for change at a university that desperately needs it.
USC has been mired in controversies, including an unfolding college admissions cheating scandal that saw USC parents and employees charged, drug use by the former dean of its prestigious medical school, and sexual misconduct allegations by more than 600 women against a former campus gynecologist.
William Tierney, a professor in USC’s Rossier School of Education and an expert on university administration and governance, said Folt is “not going to come in riding a white horse.”
“She’s not a savior,” he said. “This is a moment in time when we all have to come together to create significant change in the way we do business. If we don’t do that, then she’ll fail.”
In an interview with The Times, Folt, who previously worked as a professor of biological sciences at Dartmouth College, said she approaches problems “as the scientist that I am.”
“I say, ‘I want to know the facts,’” Folt said. “I really have to do it. I don’t want to act before I know. I want to act exactly when the right moment is. But I want to be thoughtful, and I want to make sure I have all my facts right.”
Folt’s appointment as the 12th president of USC was approved by the university’s board of trustees Wednesday, and she acknowledged that the university is “deeply troubled by a number of immediate challenges.”
Her predecessor, President C.L. Max Nikias, stepped down amid an uproar over the university’s handling of allegations, brought to light by The Times, that Dr. George Tyndall, a longtime campus gynecologist, abused and harassed hundreds of students.
Folt’s experience handling high-profile campus controversies, university leaders said, was seen as a boon. She arrived at North Carolina in 2013 shortly after revelations of vast academic fraud involving Tar Heel athletes and “no-show” classes. As chancellor, she commissioned an independent investigation by a former federal prosecutor, implemented scores of institutional reforms and dealt with an NCAA probe.
USC touted her successes at Chapel Hill, including a $4.25-billion fundraising campaign, strengthened sexual assault policies and rising diversity in the student body. In 2017, the university brought in more than $1 billion in federal research money for the first time in its history.
“She’s just a warm, thoughtful, happy person,” he said. “I love her energy. She’s just one of these enthusiastic people.”
Petite and animated, Folt, 67, was raised in Akron, Ohio, as the middle of five children. She is the grandchild of Albanian immigrants and said her family believed in the power of education.
“Sometimes I think of my grandparents coming over from Ellis Island and think, ‘Did they think that their granddaughter would grow up and be the president of the University of Southern California?’” she said. “Then I think, maybe they did, because that’s the American dream.”
Both of Folt’s parents were chemists, and seeing her mother working as a scientist inspired her to do the same. As a child, her father took her to see the first computer at B.F. Goodrich Co., where he worked. It took up a whole room. “This is the future,” he told her.
After transferring from Santa Barbara City College, Folt earned a degree in aquatic biology and a master’s in biology from UC Santa Barbara, while working as a waitress at Moby Dick Restaurant on the pier. She later earned a doctorate at UC Davis, where she met her husband, David Peart.
She joined the Dartmouth faculty in New Hampshire in 1983 and rose to become provost and interim president before leaving for North Carolina. Her husband is an emeritus professor of biological sciences at Dartmouth, and the couple have two adult children, Noah and Tessa.
“I get to outfit that baby in Trojan colors,” she said.
Come July, Folt will become the first female president in USC’s 139-year history. She also was the first woman to lead at Chapel Hill, which opened its doors in 1795.
“Being the first woman, I think a lot about accessibility and affordability, how when I started there weren’t any other women,” Folt said. “I was always looking — were there any other women in the room?”
Often, the answer was no. She said she was the only woman in her first calculus class and one of a handful of female students in chemistry classes. Folt said only one of the faculty members she took science courses with as an undergraduate was a woman.
Folt’s appointment comes as USC grapples with its role in a national college admissions cheating scandal. Of the 32 parents named in U.S. District Court in Boston this month, more than half stand accused by federal prosecutors of conspiring to bribe their way into USC.
Nearly two years ago, The Times reported that former medical school Dean Carmen Puliafito used drugs and partied with a circle of young criminals; his successor resigned after The Times revealed that USC had paid a financial settlement to a medical school fellow who accused him of sexual harassment.
Over the last year, the campus has been roiled by allegations involving Tyndall, who spent 27 years at the student health clinic. The administration reached a secret deal with the gynecologist that allowed him to leave the university with a financial payout and clean record with the state medical board.
“I think she did a good job walking a very fine line between the chaos and the difficulties of governance at the system level and the pressure she was getting from below on campus. She made mistakes, but for the most part she walked that line as well as anyone could have,” Leonard said.
But Jay Smith, a North Carolina history professor and prominent critic of the administration, said the news that Folt was hired at USC shocked him.
“I was stunned that she landed on her feet in this way, this quickly,” Smith said. “In my opinion, she didn’t distinguish herself in her leadership here. She was not a strong leader; she did not articulate a bold vision that rallied the community around her.”
In 2017, Smith’s dean forced a department chair to cancel his history class, “Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956 to the Present,” which covered the no-show class scandal at North Carolina, among other issues. Smith said Folt and other administrators sided with the dean, a move he said was an effort to censor him.
“She’s not particularly open to criticism, nor is she eager to engage those who have been public about their dissatisfaction with her policies and her decision-making,” Smith said.
Folt’s final year at North Carolina was marked by the growing controversy surrounding Silent Sam, which was erected in 1913 and torn down by protesters in August.
In December, Folt and Chapel Hill’s board of trustees recommended building an on-campus facility for the monument that would cost $800,000 a year to operate. Folt acknowledged that the plan — which was ultimately rejected by the state university system’s board of governors — satisfied no one.
In January, she argued that the monument posed a danger to students and ordered the removal of its remnants. The decision outraged some on the university’s governing body, and she was forced from the chancellor’s post at the end of January despite her plans to step down after finishing the semester.
Lindsay Ayling, a graduate student in history at North Carolina, said demonstrators initially considered Folt a potential ally, chanting at 2017 protests, “Where’s Carol?” But many came to see the chancellor herself as the problem, she said, and the chants changed: “It’s Carol’s fault.”
“I just found her to be someone who will talk out of both sides of her mouth. She would always try to signal that she was on our side, but completely helpless to do anything,” Ayling said.
Wilson, the black graduate student, has been wearing a noose around his neck since August to protest the pain black students feel on campus. He said he was “continually let down by Chancellor Folt and her refusal to acknowledge the culture of white supremacy on campus.”
Folt, he said, was approached by student activists for years and did little to address their concerns. He was frustrated that the decision to remove the pedestal seemed to burnish her legacy.
“For Chancellor Folt to finally do what anti-racist activists and students of color had been asking for years — suddenly all is forgiven?”