Our thoughts

by Marimar McNaughton
Thursday, October 20, 2011

University of North Carolina Wilmington Chancellor, Gary Miller, is a spider man.

With an extensive academic career devoted to biology, his eventual specialty was the arachnid, specifically the mating and reproductive systems of the wolf spider, a 14-year obsession that led him to publish more than 40 peer-reviewed scientific papers and one book.

That publishing history is nothing to sneeze at.

Millerís biography is impressive. After decades immersed in his own research, he has evolved into a university administrator.

His UNCW profile shows him as a Harrisonburg, Va., native; holding both a bachelorís and masterís degree in biology from William and Mary and a PhD in biological sciences from Mississippi State, where he later served as an assistant professor of entomology (the study of insects). Later he joined the faculties of Weber State in Ogden, Utah, and Ole Miss. In 2002, he landed a dual role at the College of the Pacific, both as biology professor and college dean.

That seems to have been the turning point leading him down the yellow brick road to higher education administration, inevitably to find himself at the gates of the Emerald City, or Teal Town.

But the greening of UNCW came long before Dr. Miller arrived last July. Six chancellors have preceded him. The last two were movers and shakers, dynamic public speakers, bricks and mortar builders, expert fundraisers.

Millerís challenge is wholly unique.

It may be safe to say he is approaching his tasks as if he is running a research labógiven a state-of-the-art facility, the proper equipment but dwindling funding. With nowhere to expand from the inside out, he is courting growth from the outside in. Miller may very well be the perfect successor to quietly spin the universityís reputation into a web of influence by marshaling the support of business and industry leaders and extending his networking into every nook and cranny from the city back to campus.

He was certainly feeling the teal on Tuesday,
Oct. 18 as he met with media representatives to field a few questions over a lunch of cold cuts, mac salad, brownies and tea.

"Howís the food?" he cheered as he entered the Golden Hawk Room, followed by vice chancellor Max Allen. "The students love the food."

One-on-one, Miller introduced himself around the room. He is affable, but not pompous; engaged but not committal. Addressing the areaís top media brokers he presented himself as a generalist with ideas, but would not divulge specifics.

His strategy for wining staff approval, faculty approval and the popular vote of alums, but more importantly that critical mass of Wilmington business people and CEOs, is to simply reach out to the community more.

When pressed, Miller refused to tip his hand. Ideas have to be vetted confidentially, he said. Risks assessed, he said it was best to let those ideas percolate, "I have some ideas of my own, but my guess is somebody else will think of them."

Seems a bit vague coming from the universityís front man in the teal necktie, all things considered; but not if you understand the role of the research scientist who builds a team of skilled collaborators. With his eye on the prize, quietly moving his mission forward, like the perseverant spider weaving a web, Miller will prove himself to be a methodical administrator if nothing else. The new hire of public relationist Jenni Harris as assistant to the chancellor for community partnerships to accelerate the schoolís networking capacity may push her squarely into the spotlight while the spider man observes from the safety of his net.

"We want partners in what we do. We want people interested in our programs. We want people to partner in their programs. Thatís what I think part of my job is, to increase these network possibilities," Miller said.

Reread those four sentences and the first three represent what everyone wants. The last sentence holds the glimmer of some real content.

"A lot of very successful people in this community are not connected with the university mainly because they didnít go here," Miller said.

Bingo.

The language and delivery is still lackluster but we are closing in on a target. It was one of the few specific statements Chancellor Miller made during the luncheon meet-and-greet.

Developing partnerships notwithstanding, when quizzed on what the university would use as a growth model for the future, given the choice of enrollment growth or physical growth, Miller said, "Weíre renegotiating what growth means."

He used the word ó impact.

That impact, he spelled out, would be measured by the rate at which graduating students matriculated into the workforce (actually he called that marker "students getting jobs"), students that continued their academic research, the influence of the university in community partnerships and how well the school met its goals for diversity.

Building a web of community partnerships may be the only tactic to take during what he described as a no growth economy for higher education.

"Thereís no big pool of money here," Miller said. "Weíre not going to build buildings," he added, though the university may see the renovation of some, like the recently completed improvements to Trask Coliseum, funded from outside sources.

Millerís greatest skill may be that of a seasoned belt-tightener, a skill honed in Ole Miss administration, which he said went through a lot of downsizing. Next came the College of the Pacific, then Wichita State and on to Teal Town and this economy. "This is about the worst Iíve seen," he admitted.

Whatís bothersome, he said, is the eroding value of a higher education. Citing the importance of individual degrees, leveraged into more income, overall health and a lower rate of incarceration, Miller said, "Itís also good to have universities as incubators of ideasóthat role has been diminished. Thatís the new wrinkle."

Ironing wrinkles from spider webs is a delicate business at best. Itís far too early to gauge the Miller legacy, although one thing seems certain, it will spin out slowly and surely.

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