…From my father: “Dogs don’t bark at parked cars.” If you’re sitting on the sidelines, you are not engendering change or changing the narrative. It’s when you are willing to take a risk, to step up, to challenge the status quo, that people take notice. Some may not like what you’re doing, and they may “bark” with disapproval. It’s better to take a chance, to embrace your “inflection point” and find out what you are truly made of.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Franklin D Gilliam.
An award-winning educator, Dr. Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr., was named as the eleventh Chancellor of UNC Greensboro (UNCG) in 2015. His career spans more than 30 years in higher education. Prior to this appointment, Dr. Gilliam served as Dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and was a longtime UCLA Professor of Public Policy and Political Science. His research focused on strategic communications, public policy, electoral politics, and racial and ethnic politics.
Dr. Gilliam led the effort to secure Millennial Campus designation from its Board of Governors, creating the conditions that will drive growth in areas like health and wellness and the creative and performing arts for years to come on campus and in the broader community.
Dr. Gilliam is a senior fellow with the FrameWorks Institute (winner of the 2015 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions), where he has contributed to research and training on health care, racial equity, early child development, youth and rural issues, and criminal justice. In 2018, he was named chair of the NCAA Division I Presidential Forum. Additionally, he serves on the boards of the Union Square Campus, Gateway University Research Park, North Carolina Campus Compact, and the FrameWorks Institute, as well as the Executive Committee for the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities.
Dr. Gilliam was honored with the 2015 Upton Sinclair Award by the Liberty Hill Foundation for his renowned work advancing civic engagement and commitment to issues of equity. Twice nominated for UCLA’s Luckman Distinguished Teaching Award, he has also taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Grinnell College, and the University of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, and was a Visiting Scholar at Brandeis University. In addition, he taught at Columbia University, Fisk University, and — with former Vice President Al Gore — at Middle Tennessee State University. In 2017, Dr. Gilliam was named by Triad Business Journal as one of the region’s Most Admired CEOs — a group of top executives recognized for exceptional leadership in business, and for their philanthropic endeavors.
Dr. Gilliam received his B.A. from Drake University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Iowa.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Dr. Gilliam! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
From a young age, my parents instilled in me a love for and appreciation of education. In addition to academics, my father, in particular, emphasized the importance of exercising my body as well as my mind. He played in the NFL, and I fell in love with football at a very young age. I played throughout my life, spending my collegiate career playing for Drake University (Des Moines, Iowa).
My plan was to play football professionally like my father. Those plans changed during a game my senior year. I was playing the game of my life against a Top 20 team — the University of Colorado — when in the second half of the game, I got hit so hard by a safety (who would later become a standout in the NFL), that I broke five ribs. At that point, I said to myself, “the GRE is looking pretty good.” I went from the football field to focusing on political science and Chinese history.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My career at UNCG got off to an interesting start even before I took the job. There was quite a “cloak-and-dagger” process associated with the interview, arriving at a satellite terminal at the airport, being escorted under an umbrella to a waiting car and driven into a tent, all so that they could maintain the confidentiality of candidates for the role. After the interview, though, I had about six hours to kill, so I asked to be taken to rent a car, and I decided to drive around Raleigh. I headed downtown and found a place to change into more comfortable clothes, and strolled into a cigar lounge to relax, watch Tiger Woods play at the Masters, and chat with some local folks about life in North Carolina. As I am sitting there, another gentleman walks in and everyone seems to know him. He takes a spot next to me and we start to chat. Turns out it was Phil Ford, one of the greats in Carolina basketball history. So, before I even got the job, I found myself relaxing at a cigar lounge with Phil Ford watching golf … and that seemed to set a pretty good tone for the way life in North Carolina could be!
Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
During faculty meetings at the University of Wisconsin, where I began my career, junior faculty members were the official note-takers. We couldn’t talk, only listen and record the minutes of the meeting. In one particular meeting, it was my turn to take notes. Suffice to say, the notes were not perfect — I may not have been a fully-engaged listener. I can vividly recall the past secretary editing my notes with red pen (of course) and taping them to the door of my office for everyone to see. I am not sure I agree with the public posting of my mistakes, but the only way to avoid that was to get better, do better, listen better. I learned from that day forward that listening and attention to detail are critical.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
At the heart of everything we do is this: to be a national model for how a university can blend opportunity, excellence and impact to transform the lives of individual students while at the same time making a major contribution to the prosperity of the state.
And we’re making great progress. UNCG is ranked #1 for social mobility in NC by US News & World Report. That means we take more students with significant socio-economic disadvantages — not less capability, capacity, or intellect, but fewer built in advantages than other schools — and we help them go further, develop relevant skills and knowledge, and transform their lives and those of their families for generations. Our enrollment at 22,000 students is record-breaking, and we have been growing consistently for the past six years. We are seeing growth online and in grad school especially, which are key areas of focus. So, we have momentum. And as a result of that momentum, we have some unique opportunities to expand the university and create even more opportunities.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
I think we have to start with the fact that a large portion of society does have access to higher education at relatively affordable costs. That overall is impressive and the result of a historic commitment to the notion that the pursuit of knowledge has value. Admittedly, these days we in higher ed need to do a better job of conveying that value to an increasingly skeptical public, but let’s take as a foundation that the heritage of higher education in this country is solid.
So, the question becomes how are we doing building on that foundation? And I think we are getting better because we’re realizing the tremendous value of institutions like UNC Greensboro — institutions that welcome a vast array of students, many from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, and concentrate on building the support systems that enable more of these students to engage, succeed and graduate. This is helping us dramatically transform lives, move people forward and improve life chances for families in generational ways. We are in many ways rebuilding the middle class, fueling the economy, and using higher education to have a real impact on society.
But our impacts will be limited if we maintain a classroom centric view of the university. We need a better understanding broadly of what it takes to run a university, and how a city, region, state, and so forth can come alongside. This would change the way we regulate and legislate and fund our institutions. It would help us truly unlock the potential of our colleges and universities. And it would create even more opportunity for universities to flourish not only as centers for learning and research, but also as hubs of economic growth, cultural development, and civic engagement.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
I cannot really speak to the entire US education system as a whole, but I can offer some opinion on higher ed.
1. Increased awareness for student debt and real conversations within universities to help students plan from day one.
2. Increased focus on student success, particularly for underrepresented students. Think first generation students, military veterans, etc.
3. Increased ties to the community. Whether this is through job placements or resources for the community, public universities in particular are an integral part of the towns where they’re located.
4. Increased and continued focus on research and implementing that research to create real change in communities and our country as a whole.
5. The US higher education system is one of the most diverse in the world in terms of what you can study.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
- Reducing Student Debt. Many students are unable to attain a college degree based on a lack of financial means. Accessibility to higher education for lower income and first generation potential students is critical, and the financial burden should not be a fear or a barrier. Parents should not be facing six-digit loans to help their kids get a college education.
- Career preparation. It’s crucial to set our students up for success, to provide them with career-ready skills — soft skills as well as technical skills — and guiding them along a job path from the beginning of a college career so their course choices will align with their major.
- Leadership diversity. Students need to see a reflection of themselves in leadership and authority roles. At UNCG, we are proud to have women, minorities and a swath of ethnicities represented, starting with the Chancellor’s office. The Dean of the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering is an African-American female, the first to ever hold the role. Our Deans of Online Learning, Nursing, Information Technology, as well as our Provost, are all female, as is our Athletic Director. Our General Counsel is an African American male, and we have Diversity and Inclusion Officers of Latino descent.
- Preparation in High School. We need to prepare students in high school for the rigorous academic demands of college starting their freshman year. Many students are unprepared to manage the workload.
- Technology use. Many students, particularly in rural areas, can’t visit campuses due to distance and other factors. UNCG offers virtual campus tours for potential students, as well as a robust website, videos, and a new digital app that give an inside view to students. UNCG also offers over 650 online courses, so students who want to get a degree can regardless of their location.
All of these areas come back to preserving the foundation that the US education system was built on: Education is important, higher education is important and it will change your life. The demographics of the US as a whole are changing, if the education system does not grow and change to accommodate and create a way for these students, we will miss out on knowledge and skills that could change the world.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
Although I agree that focus and importance needs to be placed on STEM and getting young people engaged early, the future of American universities does not lie in the disciplines. The more specialized a university becomes, the more you’re taken away from the kind of collaboration and lateral thinking that is required for true discovery.
That all being said, the US education system as a whole can increase engagement in STEM by opening doors for students through scholarships and exposing youth to STEM prior to their high school experience with summer camps and workshops in local public middle schools. UNCG hosts a National Science Foundation-sponsored “Science Everywhere” community event every year that’s free and open to the public. At UNCG specifically, we’ve seen dramatic improvement in STEM education through a variety of different on-campus immersive and collaborative initiatives, including the decade-long RISE Network, a coalition of educators and researchers involved in STEM education. The network provides access to STEM funding and research opportunities, and promotes working partnerships. Network members include UNCG faculty and researchers, community educators and grant specialists.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
It’s honestly amazing to me that we are still answering this question in 2019/2020. Girls and women need to be given access and support because there is a clear pattern of opportunity and excellence. UNCG began as a women’s college so the foundation of the university is in women and giving them access to the resources they need.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
I truly believe more and more universities, and the education system as a whole, are beginning to realize that real changes need to occur in order for there to be a lasting increase in the number of women and girls engaged in STEM subjects. Tangibly increasing engagement really comes down to representation. Students from elementary school up to the university level need to see people who look like themselves in leadership roles. It’s relatively easy to create diversity at an entry level, but it gets increasingly difficult to diversify a leadership team. Research has shown that it’s very difficult for a person from an underrepresented group to jump to a leadership position or authority role without any role model who has paved the way. If more leadership associated with STEM — and in general — was selected based on obtaining the widest array of voices and finding the best talent, then lasting change could begin to take root.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
I’ve always believed that one of the biggest roles for a university is to create a well-rounded individual. Finance majors should have to take an art history course, design majors should be required to take a basic accounting class. Strictly focusing on STEM and phasing out the arts will only lead us back around to the same problem we’re dealing with now. Whether it’s STEAM or something new entirely, we must focus on creating curriculums that contribute to healthy, whole and well-rounded adults.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Change the financing model; institutions should not be worried about money all the time
- Build in support services we know students need — from mental health to food security.
- Lighten regulatory requirements; enable us to focus on serving the core mission
- Require all students to take Physical Education, regardless of major (barring any physical restrictions)
- Make Financial Literacy a gen ed course for freshmen
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
From my father: “Dogs don’t bark at parked cars.” If you’re sitting on the sidelines, you are not engendering change or changing the narrative. It’s when you are willing to take a risk, to step up, to challenge the status quo, that people take notice. Some may not like what you’re doing, and they may “bark” with disapproval. It’s better to take a chance, to embrace your “inflection point” and find out what you are truly made of.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
- President Barack Obama
- Larry David
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Yes, I’m active on both channels
@UNCGChancellor on Twitter
uncgchancellor on Instagram
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!