After a long, distinguished career in higher education, Jim Woodward found himself quite comfortable in retirement – a career choice that allowed the former UNC-Charlotte chancellor an opportunity to relax the days away (sans jacket and tie, of course) with his wife, Martha, and their new puppy.
Then came a Sunday afternoon phone call from UNC system president Erskine Bowles, who asked if Woodward – an Air Force veteran who served as an assistant professor in NC State’s College of Engineering from 1968-69 – would be interested in returning to campus as the university’s chancellor.
It was the only position, Woodward recalled earlier this week, capable of luring him out of retirement.
“It really closes my professional life, and it was an interesting opportunity for me to be able to come back ‘home,’” Woodward said. “Having taught here, as my first position in public higher education, led to me always having a special feeling for this institution.
“It’s always impressed me – the deep love and affection that so many people have for this university,” he said. “You find that within the student body, you find that within the faculty and staff – many of whom have been here for 30 or 40 years –and you find that among alums, who may have worked outside of North Carolina for many years, yet they are still lovers of this campus.”
Woodward’s own passion and respect for NC State goes beyond fond memories of his time here in the late 1960’s.
Over the years, as he moved up through the ranks at The University of Alabama at Birmingham before becoming chancellor at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Woodward watched as NC State flourished as a cutting-edge research university, and one able to keep rooted in its mission to serve the public as a land-grant institution.
“I believe deeply that public universities have to support public needs – economic and otherwise – and the founder of this university understood that from day one,” he said.
Those needs are more prevalent than ever, as a turbulent economy has forced budget cuts throughout state government – including the university system. But less than two days on the job, Woodward had already spoken to N.C. governor Bev Purdue and a number of the state’s legislative leaders in hopes of minimizing budget cuts at NC State, the state’s largest university.
“It’s ultimately my responsibility to ensure that we handle budget cuts in a way that protects to the fullest extent the core purposes of this university, and I intend to do that,” he said.
Woodward served as an assistant professor in the engineering mechanics department of NC State’s College of Engineering during the 1968-69 academic year.
NC State, Woodward said, is of pivotal importance to the future economic well-being of the state, and will continue to extend its legacy of success, academic excellence and scientific discovery in spite of the tough times, spurring future growth in North Carolina and beyond.
“The research and educational programs in place here are right at the point of where we know the new economy will be,” he said. “We, as an institution, are ideally positioned to educate the students that need to work this new industry and to do the research that undergirds it in a way that no other institution is.
“There is no other institution in the state that has the responsibility that NC State does,” Woodward said. “In my view, at this point in time, NC State is the most important university in the state of North Carolina.”
The key to the university’s ongoing successes, he said, are the members of NC State’s faculty and staff.
“Anyone who has worked in this type of position understands that good universities are good because they hire and keep good staff and faculty,” Woodward said. “NC State is not just a good university – it is a great university, because it has been successful in doing that.”
Admittedly, part of Woodward’s new role is to help calm a campus that has faced intense media scrutiny in recent months.
“I would hope that my reputation as someone who served successfully as a chancellor for many years and also someone who operated with a high degree of integrity would carry over into the position,” he said. “I may be naïve, but I think we will work ourselves out of this in short order.
“To begin with, the people who really count are the people who are on the front line, doing what universities do,” Woodward said. “They are outstanding people today, they were outstanding people a month ago, and they will be outstanding a year, two, three or four years from now.”
He also pledges full disclosure – to the public, to the legislature and to members of the media.
“We need to operate with full transparency,” Woodward said. “It is the way of the environment now, and I happen to think it’s good.
“As a public university, we are owned by the people of North Carolina – we have got to be accountable,” he said. “The media and political leadership are responsible for ensuring we are accountable to the people who own us, and they can make that assurance only if they have access to what’s occurring within the university.
“I intend to make sure that does happen.”
And as he re-acclimates himself to NC State’s campus as well as his new position, Woodward’s personal goals – at least in the short-term – are more simple.
“I just want to be able to talk to my wife in the morning and the evening, and make sure the puppy’s doing alright, too,” he said with a laugh.