Allison is a longtime school-choice advocate and a former lobbyist who most recently served as vice president for governmental affairs and state teams at the American Federation for Children, a nonprofit group that was once led by Betsy DeVos, the former U.S. secretary of education.
In September, Allison abruptly resigned from his seat on North Carolina’s Board of Governors to become a candidate for the post at Fayetteville State, a historically Black college about 60 miles south of Raleigh, N.C., that enrolls about 6,700 students. Allison is a graduate of North Carolina Central University, another historically Black college in the North Carolina system, and earned a law degree, in 1999, from the Chapel Hill campus.
Allison does not have a Ph.D., and his higher-education experience is limited to the years he served on the system’s board, from 2017 to 2020. As a board member, Allison played a central role in the system’s response to a Confederate monument at Chapel Hill, known as Silent Sam, that was torn down by student protesters in 2018. Allison supported a proposal that would have given $2.5 million to the Sons of Confederate Veterans to take the statue off the university’s hands and maintain it. The plan, which provoked outrage, was later thrown out by a state judge.
(Controversy continues to swirl around the deal, which was executed in secret.)
Allison’s appointment is just the latest in a series of contentious decisions by the Board of Governors, which has long been criticized as a politicized body prone to ideological agendas that run afoul of standards of academic governance.
The chancellor’s appointment was met with a swift backlash, as reports surfaced, citing unnamed sources, that Allison had not been among the finalists recommended by the local search committee. Fayetteville State’s Faculty Senate passed several resolutions in response, including one that demanded that Allison’s appointment be rescinded and the search be declared “failed.”
That didn’t happen.
As expected, Allison assumed his duties as Fayetteville State’s 12th chancellor on March 15. During his first week, Allison spoke with The Chronicle in a wide-ranging interview about the challenges facing the campus, the controversy surrounding his appointment, and the pain he says the Silent Sam episode still evokes for him personally.
The conversation has been condensed and minimally edited for clarity.
What do you see as higher education’s biggest problem right now? And how is Fayetteville State reflected in those challenges?
I don’t liken myself to be an individual who can adequately respond to such a weighty question. When I was on the UNC Board of Governors, and then-President Margaret Spellings had rolled out a strategic plan that talked about greater access and affordability, it really struck me: We are going to be very intentional for students in those poor, rural counties, those potential first-generation college entrants. One of the things that was of concern to me was “Are we prepared to properly support them?”
The student population of Fayetteville State University is 80 percent from rural counties. I want to make sure that we have an offering here, providing the scholarships, providing for challenges that they may have — a stipend, transportation, etc. — as well as making sure that we may have a meal or two for them in the course of a day, because I want to give them every opportunity.
You were bound to be a divisive pick as Fayetteville State’s chancellor. Why was your selection worth the heartburn?
Higher ed connects with me on a very personal level. I am that first-generation student of my family to not only go to college but to graduate. I have a brother and older sister; they were that same first-generation student. And all of us were fortunate to get an academic four-year scholarship to North Carolina Central University. We needed it because our parents could not afford to send one of us, let alone three of us, to college.
The three primary things Fayetteville State said they needed were this: They wanted a strong advocate. They wanted a chancellor to help elevate the brand and reputation of Fayetteville State University. And thirdly, they wanted someone that had experience in building strategic partnerships that will leverage resources — fund raising for the institution. I felt very strongly that I checked those boxes.
Was I the brightest, smartest, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera? When are you ever?
Did you expect your selection to be divisive?
Listen, I’m not from Pluto. I was born and raised in America. Unfortunately, everything is just so partisan and divisive.
A lot of boards find appeal in a person with some political acumen, which I think it’s fair to say that you have. Do you think academic credentials, as traditionally defined for these positions, are simply outmoded?
No, I don’t.
I feel as if we have to get to the heart of the matter here. There has been an erosion of trust from your selection. I’ve talked to faculty who feel disrespected by this process. They feel that shared governance is imperiled. Is that a problem?
It depends on when you captured the erosion of trust and when you had those conversations. We have been very purposeful this first week to engage. What I have said to students, to staff, and to faculty is, I understand that you have issues about the process. I can’t speak to that. I was a candidate in that process. But now that I’m here, just give me a chance, and hold tightly to the university’s motto — Res non verba [“Deeds not words”].
Trust and respect is not merely given; it has to be earned.
I think that’s exactly what the faculty are saying — that they believe trust was violated and that it hasn’t been earned. That’s precisely what faculty are saying.
I did not break that trust. Again, it’s more beyond me.
Do you bear any responsibility for a process that some people think is illegitimate?
I do not bear any responsibility because I had no responsibility over the process. I have responsibility over how I lead, how I act, and how I work in a way for us to get the positive results we need here at Fayetteville State University.
Do our stakeholders feel like we’re making progress together? That is what I have to show.
I know it was a stormy path in terms of how I got here. I’m not making light of that. I’m not ignoring that. I very much understand that.
I am Darrell Allison, and some of the things I have read and heard about that guy, I don’t even like him. But I am looking at today and tomorrow, and I believe I’ve got a lot to give.
But you could have said, “This process is going to hurt this university; it’s bigger than me, and I’m not going to be a part of it.” And you didn’t. And I am wondering why.
Because this process is not going to define me in what I seek to bring. There’s a reason why I pursued this. It’s not for ego. It’s not for being chancellor for the sake of being chancellor. I really felt like I had a good understanding of the needs of Fayetteville State University.
Given your history in the school-choice movement, I think people are curious about your perceptions of Betsy DeVos, who is a big champion of that. How did you assess her performance as U.S. education secretary as it related to higher ed?
There were some positives and obviously some things that I did not care for too much.
What did you not care for too much?
I’ll just leave my answer at that.
Did you have any response when she referred to historically Black colleges as “pioneers of school choice”?
No, I didn’t have a response. You know as well as I do that there really was no choice when these schools were started. That’s why they were started. It was this or nothing.
What did the Silent Sam controversy teach you?
Being the only African American at the time on the Board of Governors, obviously that issue hit me in a unique way. I did not raise my hand to be a part of a working group on Silent Sam, but the leadership asked me and said we really want to try to find a solution.
I had two priorities: One was to make sure that that statue never again was erected on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. No. 2, to make sure that statue was never re-erected on any of the other 15 campuses of the UNC system.
It was a matter of life and death. I feared that we were going to see bloodshed and death, potentially, on the campuses of our UNC system. Status quo was not going to be an option for me. The other option, candidly, was a not-so-good option: There would be some compensation given to this group [the Sons of Confederate Veterans] to take the statue away. That was the not-so-good option, but I stand by it very strongly. If it’s going to come down to money versus the preservation of student life, I’m going to choose student life every time. So that’s why I supported it.
Do you remember seeing the statue on campus when you were a law student?
When you see that statue now, what do you feel?
I don’t see it. And I’m happy that I don’t see it. That’s how I feel.
I talked to one of your former colleagues on the Board of Governors a while back, who said he didn’t understand how a person could feel threatened by an inanimate object. Do you agree with that?
This is what I would say to those who make that statement: In the Jim Crow era, for a Caucasian individual to rail against that statue, they would have been protected by the First Amendment. For an individual like me at that time to say anything aggressively about it, there was a likelihood that I would be lynched by the nearest tree. That’s the reality that we have experienced.
Just because you didn’t face those challenges doesn’t mean that those feelings and those struggles should be nullified or ignored.
Let me ask one last question on this topic —
Hey, Jack, I’m being honest with you, and I’ve just been candid with you — just talking about this issue, it’s enough. It’s deeply emotional, and it’s painful, so I think I’ve said enough on this subject.
OK, I’m going to respect that. I have another question related to race, but if that’s a topic that you’d just rather move on from —
We’re at an inflection point in this country right now around race. What is the role and responsibility of Fayetteville State at this moment?
To be its remarkable self.
This school is probably one of the leaders in the UNC system educating [underserved students]. It’s a diverse, very impactful university that still is very true to its HBCU roots. It was relevant back in 1867. It is just as relevant, just as needed, today in 2021.