It seems as if every good leader has a Waterloo. Richard Nixon’s was Watergate. Bill Clinton’s was Monica Lewinsky. George W. Bush had George W. Bush. Recent The News & Observer Tar Heel of the Week and temporary NC State University Chancellor James Woodward has his, but it’s more complex than a simple name or phrase. He would be more like Bush, but Woodward had help.
Woodward, a retired elder of the University of North Carolina System, was called about nine months ago to fill a void on the System’s flagship campus in Raleigh. Chancellor James Oblinger hadn’t been completely honest to his boss, System President Erskine Bowles, about the hiring of Mary Easley, the wife of then Governor Mike Easley whose chief advisor has now been indicted on numerous counts of lots of stuff. Oblinger and the Chairman of the NCSU Board of Trustees were forced out. Ah, the tangled web that’s woven when it comes to education and politics.
If you read accounts of all of this in The News & Observer, you would think that NC State University was no better off than the Jews wondering the wilderness when Moses came to the rescue to lead them to the Promised Land. In The N&O’s account, Woodward has played the part of Moses. What a crock! Even without a Chancellor and with an interim Provost and a newly elected BOT chairman, NC State was not falling apart, and didn’t need anyone to save it from ruin. Yes, State needed a temporary Chancellor, one who would lead until a permanent replace was found. But it did not require a harsh administrator who made several rash and hurried decisions based on advice from at least one shady character on the executive staff who has the personality of, well, all the red brick on the State campus, with apologies to the red brick.
When the writer of the Tar Heel of the Week story that bestowed the paper’s highest honor on Woodward went looking for information for his lengthy 1B (page and section of the paper) article, the subject of which was not worthy of 1A, he obviously and under orders from his editors turned to a handful of people who praised Woodward and avoided those who have differences. Or maybe those with differences wouldn’t speak on the record and maybe the writer didn’t want to write more than a fluff piece which is what it was. If the former is true, with Woodward out of office in a matter of hours, those who differ with Woodward did right in keeping quiet, especially on the record. Woodward, it seems, has a knack for deciding off the cuff to take action and then following through, no if, ands or buts. That’s how he came to fire career NC State employee and loyalist Lennie Barton from his position as Associate Vice Chancellor for alumni Relations and Executive Director of the Alumni Association.
Of course, it's doubtful Woodward would have not done that, would not have bothered himself with a change in that position if it had not been for Vice Chancellor for Advancement Nevin Kessler who, along with AA President Lynn Daniel, wanted to get rid of Barton but didn’t want to do it himself. Kessler, who wouldn’t have been able to withstand heat from Alumni, and Daniel, who regularly exchanged emails critical of Barton with Kessler, made sure that Barton was not represented in a good light to Woodward who, according to that Tar Heel of the Week article, says he fired Barton because the membership growth in the Alumni Association had slowed and that Barton “had done a poor job handling finances” of the alumni Association. The finances are referring to a plan devised by several prominent alumni who understand cash flow, especially when building and financing a new alumni facility.
It’s amazing that Woodward "discovered" this in a very short time after taking the job, especially when there were many other concerns surrounding his appointment. As many of Woodward's emails I've read recently, I cannot find any that outline specifically the poor job handling finances. Considering Kessler had dismissed other direct reportees prior to Woodward’s arrival, Woodward would have been wise to have studied the situation longer, even look into how Barton's direct boss, Kessler, handles finances which are obviously not very well (see next paragraph). But, Woodward's off the cuff technique took over.
But wait; there’s more. Woodward’s ears must reek of odor due to all the garbage he’s was hearing from Kessler who convinced Woodward that a 5% tax on all donations to NC State is appropriate with the money going to Kessler's discretion. It means taking much needed money from all departments and putting it into the operations of Kessler’s office, University Advancement. Kessler had push back from the College Deans and from the College-based Foundation executives who are in the trenches every day over this tax, but obviously Woodward didn’t want to listen to the Deans, a well-respected group, and Kessler wasn't about to tell Woodward the bad news. From this, one can only surmise Woodward cared more for Kessler than for the Deans and that Kessler cannot do his primary job of raising adequate funds to support his bad habits in fund-raising and administration of his office. Kessler delivered an olive branch offering to return 2% to the colleges and foundations. So, maybe he just wants 3% but he’ll go before the NCSU Board of Trustees to ask for 5%, saying he’ll return 2%. That comes up in mid-April at the BOT first meeting with new Chancellor, Randy Woodson.
It’s sad that Woodward, who according to the Tar Heel of the Week article, has saved NC State University from ruin (what bull), has listened to Kessler on so many subjects. Woodward came to NC State with assurance from Bowles that he (Woodward) would have total control. When he “walked into the room” he was forceful and definitive in his words and actions. Maybe the BOT members were looking for a leader instead of being leaders. Yes, Woodward does not work for the BOT, but a little resistance from those who represent the alumni of NC State would have been nice. On the other hand, part of the scandal that caused Oblinger to resign came directly from the Board of Trustees. NC State didn’t need anyone to “clean up a mess.” It just needed an honest person to sit in the Chancellor’s Chair until the permanent replacement for Oblinger was found.
But, Woodward would have none of that. He wanted uncontrollable control, and he got it. Maybe, Woodward, in some respects, was good for NC State University, but on several matters, he missed the mark, and while some will remember him for steadying a ship that was teetering a little, he’ll also be known as one who listened to bad advice and acted. He gets credit for down-sizing a new home for Chancellors to come. Big deal. He fired a very popular Alumni Director. Shame, shame. Why not tackle the leadership of the Department of Athletics. Or maybe he did. Lots of word on the street about that, even with a head-hunter involved. Maybe Woodward started something he wanted to do but just couldn’t finish it.
All of this makes one wonder the criteria for The N&O Tar Heel of the Week honor, if it indeed is an honor. One staff writer told me that overall the editors think Woodward was good for NC State. Maybe, but does that mean the bad parts of the story should go untold? I feel my University has been lied to, cheated on and has more than spots all over a blue dress. Tar Heel of the Week: just what are the criteria? It’s whatever serves the newspaper, and in this case, The N&O missed the mark for qualifications. On the other hand, wasn’t John Edwards once a recipient? Considering Edwards’ recent Waterloo, not bad company for Woodward.
Yes, Nixon had his Watergate, and Clinton had his Lewinsky. Woodward, well, it remains complicated. He has his Kessler, but then Woodward also has himself. Isn’t there a way for the two to leave together?