How UNC Charlotte’s new chancellor plans to improve the Charlotte region

How UNC Charlotte’s new chancellor plans to improve the Charlotte region
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This content was created in partnership with UNC Charlotte

When Sharon L. Gaber, Ph.D. stepped into her role as UNC Charlotte’s fifth chancellor, it was right in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s a tough time to take the reins but Gaber’s poise and experience has her well-prepared to step in as the University’s new leader.

Gaber, who has served as president of the University of Toledo and in leadership roles at the University of Arkansas, and Auburn University, is UNC Charlotte’s first female chancellor, following in the footsteps of founder Bonnie Cone – a title she’s proud to take on. Gaber also has a background in city and regional planning and has published numerous academic articles on the subject.

dr. gaber unc charlotte

Chancellor of UNC Charlotte Dr. Sharon L. Gaber

The University, as well as the city of Charlotte, is facing a lot of uncertainty right now. Great leaders have never been more important to the future of our community.

Since 2009, UNC Charlotte’s student population has steadily grown. They’re now above 30,000 students and ready for more growth as they add leading-edge programs like the School of Data Science (a first in the Carolinas).

I sat down with Chancellor Gaber over Zoom last week to talk about her vision for the future of UNC Charlotte and the potential impact on the surrounding Charlotte community.  Here’s what she had to say:

Some answers have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

You recently spoke to Charlotte Business Alliance about the importance of three things: improving the ladder of social mobility, developing future leaders, and using universities as the region’s research laboratory. Why are these three things crucial to the future of our city?

There’s a confluence of things – Charlotte is one of the top 15 metropolitan areas and we know we are the largest public research university. So what does research tell us about universities and the way they interact or impact the city? Universities make cities very attractive for public and private investment. And the research dollars that universities attract make them natural hubs for talent in all different fields, as well as constant sources of experimentation and innovation in a diverse set of industries.

In terms of social mobility, we are the way to help individuals move forward and that’s critically important. We are affordable, we are accessible, and we change people’s lives. Research has shown individuals who complete a bachelor’s degree will earn $1 million more in the course of their lifetime. And we continue to evolve our interdisciplinary programs to ensure we are developing highly-skilled leaders that will shape the future workforce.

We’re a relatively young university and we continue to grow into our own. I mean, we’re 74 years young and yet we’re doing really well. So now let’s watch the next 75 years and see where we go. We’re going to be competing with some of the very high research universities and remaining accessible and affordable to people broadly in our region and across the state.

First-Generation College Students Day was yesterday, what’s the significance of that on social mobility and shaping future leadership?

Well, 37% of our students are first-generation and that’s a relatively large percentage. We already talked about the significance associated with having a college degree. Couple that with the fact that 70% of our students stay local and that has the opportunity to really transform our region. We have to reach out and make sure that we’re getting to students even before high school so that they understand going to college is possible.

Additionally, our freshman class had an average weighted GPA of 3.9 so we’re bringing in high-ability students, yet we’re also very accessible and affordable, which you don’t always find in a good university. Usually, it’s one or the other and we’re somehow doing both.

Hear from some of UNC Charlotte’s first-generation Niners and their families here

During your time as president at the University of Toledo, you were nationally recognized for your efforts in a number of areas, including increasing research funding. Can you speak a little bit about your time at some of the other universities you worked at from a research standpoint and how you’ve driven that piece forward?

The University of Toledo was founded in 1872 and it really did a lot in partnership both with the health professions and with engineering, and then made connections on a national scale with national energy labs. I think that’s what we have the opportunity to do here.

We’re a hub for energy, finance, and banking which encompasses a lot with data analytics. We have opportunities to push in both of those areas. Our College of Computing and Informatics is one of the largest in the nation and creates a wealth of opportunity for even more research in partnership with a variety of industries.

We’re also doing energy research in our Albert & Freeman Energy Production Research Center (EPIC) and Duke Energy has been very interested and involved. The Duke Smart Grid Laboratory is located in EPIC and supports education, research, and outreach activities to modernize the power grid.

What areas of research do you see having the biggest opportunity for the university and the future of Charlotte?

First of all, I’ll point out that we did $52 million in externally funded research last year. That was a record high for UNC Charlotte and we will keep increasing that. Research universities are magnets for industries that continue to think about how to innovate. Whether it’s data analytics, or bioinformatics, or engineering – all of these are strengths of ours, and have opportunities to further support the Charlotte region. By having a company say, “I’d like your class to look into this. I’d like your professor to look into this,” we become an R&D unit for a company that has to think about innovation. That’s where we create an opportunity for many industries.

A lot of your major metro areas have research universities and companies relocate there because they want the talent pipeline and they want cutting-edge thinking on a particular area of interest.

With industries quickly evolving with technology, how is UNC Charlotte keeping programming relevant and useful for students to better prepare them to become future leaders in their fields?

We try to stay up-to-date and think about what we are doing and what that looks like. I mentioned bioinformatics and that’s not something every university has or the School of Data Science, which is a first in the Carolinas. We try to continue to think about the niche that we’re serving.

We’re starting a strategic planning process right now and part of the conversation there is where we continue to push or build on our strengths. There are some things that we’re really strong in and we want to stay on that cutting edge to make sure our students are well situated and well prepared.

What about UNC Charlotte and the city of Charlotte drew you here personally?

When looking into an opportunity, you start to do your research and you look at what’s happening both on campus and in the broader community. Charlotte continues to grow, which creates great opportunity. Then, you look at the history of UNC Charlotte and all that was accomplished in a short period of time, and that excited me.

I’ve come to this really, really good university and now we’re going to talk about how we push it to the next level.

You came into this role during a tough time for our nation and our city, how has the pandemic shaped your first year as chancellor at UNC Charlotte?

It’s different and, in some ways, it’s harder. First of all, everybody is preoccupied with how to manage Covid in any business or industry. For a large, public university, we’ve had unique challenges because not only do employees work here but students live on campus. So we’ve had to adjust all of our operations with the safety and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff at the forefront of our decision-making. Everything from thinking about, “what does it look like to live in a residence hall to are you online, or are you face-to-face for classes?”

Then, there are just normal things that a new chancellor in town has going on. I feel like I’m a people person. I want to go out and talk to people so instead, I do Zoom calls all day, which is great but it’s just harder because you don’t have as many connections. I do enjoy sitting down and talking to people and having the opportunity to be asked lots of great questions about Charlotte and the university. For me, I want to hear everybody else’s views on that as well because it helps me shape where we’re going and think about what else we can be doing.

Want to learn more? Check out all the cutting-edge research that’s happening at UNC Charlotte.

This content was created in partnership with UNC Charlotte. 

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