By Laurie D. Willis

 

Chancellor Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr.

 

This year, as the University of North Carolina at Greensboro celebrates its 125th anniversary, there appears to be no end in sight for the growth and innovation planned for the institution that began as a college for women and now is among the state’s best.

“We believe we are at a unique moment of opportunity for UNCG,” says Chancellor Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr. “We are launching our new strategic plan and this will be our roadmap for the next five years as we look to transform students, knowledge and the region. We have some clear priorities.”

Among those priorities, Gilliam says, are embracing the university’s designation as a millennial campus, a status that will enable UNCG to pursue partnerships in the private, nonprofit and government sectors to drive growth; telling the UNCG story and improving visibility; continuing to enhance academic programs and student success initiatives; competing for athletic championships; and continuing to grow.

If Gilliam has his way, UNCG will accomplish all of those priorities and more. Since he assumed the presidency of the school in 2015, it has really started coming into its own.

 

No longer a “hidden gem”

“It starts by understanding who we are and communicating that in an authentic way,” says Jeff Shafer, UNCG’s associate vice chancellor for communications and chief communications officer. “Until the chancellor’s arrival, there was a feeling that being the ‘best kept secret’ or a ‘hidden gem’ was acceptable. Now, as we look ahead, we realize that not only do we have what it takes to be known as one of North Carolina’s best universities, but we have the mission and the mandate to tell this story.”

Shafer says UNCG is “perhaps the most diverse state university in North Carolina” and has high-ranking and award-winning programs.

“We have a focus on student success that has been recognized nationally,” he says. “We have world-class facilities like our new Kaplan Wellness Center and, coming soon, a $100 million new nursing and STEM instruction building. We have to get the word out about who we are, because once students see the campus, talk to our faculty and meet our incredibly diverse student body, they tend to realize that UNC Greensboro is really an incredible place.”

From the looks of things, in its 125th year of existence, UNCG is faring well in terms of realizing founder Dr. Charles Duncan McIver’s vision.

“Fundamentally, Dr. McIver created a university that was about the balance of opportunity and excellence,” Gilliam says. “It was a place for an underserved, underrepresented group (women) to come not just to go to school but to access truly outstanding academic opportunity. I believe today we are still very focused on that vision and on maintaining that commitment to providing both opportunity for those who seek it and work hard, and a path to real academic excellence that can serve them well for a lifetime.”

 

‘Something special about UNCG’

Kristen Russell, who earned a bachelor of fine arts in interior architecture in 2012, says she chose UNCG because of its size and location to her Whitsett home.

“UNCG does a more than adequate job of preparing its students for real-world experiences,” says Russell, who also has a master of arts in interior design from the Savannah College of Arts and Design. “The studio classes I had to take for my major were very intense because our professors knew that in the design world we would have extremely demanding clients. I and other design students knew our professors were being hard on us because, in the long run, it would make us attractive candidates for prospective employers.”

Russell, who is African American, studied in Seoul, South Korea, a year before she graduated from UNCG. Before attending UNCG, she said she never imagined she would have the opportunity to spend a semester abroad.

“I have two aunts who went to UNC Chapel Hill and another aunt who went to (N.C.) A&T (State University),” Russell says. “They all talked to me about their institutions, and I know they’re good schools. I also considered going to UNC Charlotte, but there was just something special about UNCG that drew me to it. Once I arrived on campus as a freshman and got settled in, I knew I had made the right choice.”

Testimonies like that are music to Gilliam’s ears.

“There isn’t just one reason why a prospective student should pick UNCG over other UNC System institutions,” he says. “However, our commitment to service and community-engaged research are often mentioned when students discuss why they chose us. UNCG does a good job of providing ‘something extra,’ whether it be the outstanding experiences of study abroad, which is accessible and prevalent to all students here, or our Honors Program, which is personal and driven. In addition, students recognize that certain of our programs such as Nursing, the Arts, and Health and Human Services are known for excellence.”

 

‘University that transforms knowledge’

As the university celebrates its 125th anniversary, Gilliam says it’s critical for the institution to have a seat at the table, so to speak, when people discuss the top public institutions in the region.

In rankings released in September by U.S. News & World Report, Duke University was recognized as the ninth-best institution in the magazine’s annual “National Universities” list. Other North Carolina four-year institutions that were ranked in the Top 100 were Wake Forest University at No. 27, UNC Chapel Hill, the state’s flagship institution, at No. 30, and N.C. State University at No. 81.

Many students – and their parents – rely heavily on the publication’s rankings to help them decide where to apply for college.

“We want to be included in the conversation,” Gilliam says. “Not because we aim to imitate other institutions, but rather because we want to remain true to our core and be the best at what we do. We are a student-centered university that serves a student body with a diversity of backgrounds; a university with a robust, impactful research agenda; and a university that helps shape the fate we share with the city of Greensboro, the Triad, the state of North Carolina and beyond. We are a university that transforms knowledge and transforms the region.”

Gilliam says he had been recruited by other institutions and offered other presidencies before he came to UNCG, but “they just weren’t the right fit or didn’t come at the right time.” When he visited UNC Greensboro’s campus during one of his interviews, he said it simply felt right.

“UNCG has an accomplished faculty, strong academic programs and a history of diversity, inclusion and civic engagement,” he says. “It was a place where I felt I could make an immediate and lasting positive impact.”

Gilliam says he’s determined to keep working to make UNC Greensboro the best institution it can be – particularly as it celebrates a milestone anniversary.

“Our best attributes have really been consistent throughout our 125-year history, and they are based on an uncompromising commitment to providing both opportunity and academic excellence to our students,” he says. “This ties directly to the overall mission of the university, which is service. Our faculty and students contribute one million service hours annually, which is a testament to the core values we embrace.”

Of Gilliam’s sixteen executive staff members, eleven, or 69 percent, are women. He says he’s counting on each of them to help him continue the upward trajectory UNCG is on.

“I have told my team many times that now is our opportunity to ensure that when the conversation arises about the best universities in North Carolina, we must be a part of that discussion,” Gilliam says. “It is time for UNCG to step into the spotlight and embrace our place among the state’s top universities.”