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Executive Profile

that Last

Marye Anne Fox has broken many glass ceilings, but now she sees herself, and her university, in a new light

By Phil Kirk

North Carolina State University Chancellor Marye Anne Fox (above) has been the “first” in several areas. First woman hired by the chemistry department at the University of Texas at Austin. First woman to hold an endowed chair at that institution. First female to serve as chancellor at N.C. State.

Being first often brings additional challenges to already tough assignments. More is often expected and sometimes a double standard of judgments may be applied in determining success or failure.

Fox demonstrated her reputation as a quick study at the news conference introducing her to the public more than three years ago when she arrived in Raleigh.

During the question-and-answer session at that initial exposure to the public, then Commissioner of Agriculture Jim Graham, a State graduate and enthusiastic supporter, asked the new chancellor what the letter “A” stood for.

She paused and then responded enthusiastically “Agriculture, of course.” Graham beams and recalls, “and we had never met before!” The “Sodfather” attributes the response to her intelligence and good staff work.

Her wit, intelligence and energy impressed the board of trustees at N.C. State when they were searching for a replacement to Dr. Larry Monteith.

Smedes York, who was chair of the board when Fox was installed as N.C. State’s 12th chancellor, calls her a “true sparkplug. She brings energy and vision to N.C. State. With her academic credentials, she sets a high standard for the university.”

Along with her deans and executive officers, Fox outlined three visions for the largest university in North Carolina.

First, they promised to build a diverse campus community — “one that nurtures both demographic and intellectual plurality.” Second, fostering innovative partnerships was made a top priority. Third, they promised to promote an effective and efficient management structure by developing a business model that works.

“Together we promised to emphasize our traditional values (excellence, teamwork and integrity) by embracing these visions,” Fox says.

Fox truly believes that N.C. State University is one of the best in the nation in forging university-business partnerships.

“This relationship is especially important with federal support declining and priorities shifting,” she says. “It is becoming more and more important that we maintain our intellectual integrity while promoting economic development.”

The 1,200-acre Centennial Campus, located across Western Boulevard from the main campus, was well on its way to being a success before Fox’s arrival. However, its growth has accelerated and will continue to do so.

From 22 public-private partnerships to 70 now, the Centennial Campus occupies more than one million square feet. Largely because of bond money and Fox’s sales ability, the occupied space will double within the next five years. Fourteen buildings are currently located on the campus with six more in the planning stages. Nearly 4,000 officials, faculty, staff and students are on the campus.

“This proves N.C. State is playing with the ‘big boys’ when it comes to serving as a business incubator,” Fox says.

A native of Canton, Ohio, Fox was born to Charles Payne, who managed a steel mill, and Lucille Payne, who taught school off and on while raising Marye Anne and her sister, Elizabeth Theiss, who lives in Orlando. Fox’s father is deceased but her mother still lives in Canton. She was seen cheering for the Wolfpack football team in the Chancellor’s Box last fall.

She lived in Canton until she graduated from high school. That next year she became an exchange student in France.

“From my parents I learned the value of hard work and putting other people ahead of yourself,” Fox recalls.

Fox claims she has the extraordinary ability to tell whether people are telling the truth. “I also inherited or learned to read people and that was real helpful in raising our kids,” she says.

In high school she developed a keen interest in science. “That was during the Sputnik era,” she notes. “Psychics was too mathematical and biology was too messy, so I became a clean chemist.”

While in junior high school, she developed an interest in swimming and became a lifeguard. She played on the intramural girls basketball team and developed her musical talent on the clarinet in the high school band.

Fox and her husband, Dr. Jim Whitesell, a member of the chemistry faculty at State, were faculty members in the same department at the University of Texas. They have been married for 11 years.

While Fox wishes her schedule allowed her to teach a class, the flexibility that being a researcher allows permits her to continue to work in the lab and to read and write. She and her husband are responsible for four post-doctoral students and they write and implement grants together.

Their family includes five sons, three from Fox’s first marriage and two from Whitesell’s. Bobby Fox, the oldest at 29, is a materials engineer for Motorola, and lives in Austin with his wife, Christine, who’s scheduled to deliver the clan’s first grandchild on Feb. 20. Michael, 25, is a pharmacist in Austin will marry in May, while Matthew, a junior anthropology and pre-med student at Notre Dame, enjoyed the fall semester studying in Spain.

Whitesell’s oldest, Chris, is 29 and is married and an engineer for Texas Instruments in Dallas. Robert Whitesell, 27, also is married and is a private chef for a family in Los Angeles.

With three children in Texas, one in California and another at Notre Dame, Fox and Whitesell spend a lot of time in the air. In addition to the chancellor’s residence on Hillsborough Street, they have homes in Austin and Pinehurst.

Fox played a little golf as a teen and occasionally in Texas, but she became more serious about the sport upon moving to North Carolina. She can break 100 and Whitesell shoots in the 85-90 range.

Balancing time among work and leisure, North Carolina and Texas, being in her office in Holladay Hall on the NCSU campus and speaking across the state is a daunting challenge.

A firm believer in community relations, Fox is visible both in Raleigh and in cities and towns across the state and nation promoting the university.

“A major part of N.C. State’s mission is service to the people of North Carolina,” Fox says. In the Chancellor’s Room in the basement of Holladay Hall is a map noting her visits across the state.

For example, each fall she and her husband teach a high school chemistry class in a poor, rural school as a part of the Teach for America program.

Fox and her colleagues recognize the need to continuously “tell the N.C. State story,” especially in North Carolina.

The timing of the N.C. State public relations push and the traveling and speaking across the state helped to pave the way for the landslide victory of the $3.1 billion bond package for the UNC System and community colleges — the biggest higher education bond package in the history of the United States.

Fox was among the most active campaigners for the package, which resulted in $468 million for new buildings, repairs and renovations on the West Raleigh campus. “She is a wonderful spokesperson for our university — very articulate,” York says.

The economy and resulting pressures on North Carolina’s general fund are major concerns for the university chancellor. “The bonds do not address operating costs,” she says. “North Carolina has a national reputation for being a strong, consistent supporter of higher education. Our worry is that the budget will not continue that high level of support.

“Research builds the workforce and produces ideas which help to create wealth. If we’re to maintain and enhance our leadership position, we have to be leaders in science and technology and equipment is expensive.”

Fox sees more partnering with other institutions — both public and private — but especially with other institutions in the UNC system. “We have an obligation to work together,” she says. “In tight budget times, there is no alternative.”

Fox came to N.C. State with a strong background in academics. She excelled as a student, receiving her bachelor of science degree from Notre Dame and her doctorate from Dartmouth, both in chemistry. After a post-doctoral appointment at the University of Maryland, she joined the faculty at the University of Texas in 1976.

Fox has taught chemistry courses ranging from lower division to advanced graduate levels. She was named by Utmost magazine as one of the “Best of UT Natural Science Faculty” and in 1986 won the College’s Teaching Excellence Award. In 1996, she won Sigma Xi’s Monie A. Ferst Award in recognition of outstanding mentoring; so far, 27 doctoral and 15 master’s degrees have been awarded under her supervision. At the national level, she is a frequent lecturer on science education reform and acts as an adviser to the Association for Women in Science.

In terms of research, Fox is one of the nation’s most creative and prolific physical organic chemists, having published more than 300 referred papers, five books and more than 20 book chapters, mostly in organic photochemistry and electrochemistry.

She has received international research awards and was cited by Esquire magazine as “Best of the New Generation.” Among her other various honors, she has also been a Sloan Research Fellow and a Dreyfus Teacher Scholar.

Last fall Fox was selected to co-chair the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable, a group sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.

The forum, which is made up of about two dozen science and technology leaders, was formed in the mid-1980s to exchange ideas and explore research opportunities that involve government, universities and private industry. Its members include corporate chief executives and heads of federal agencies.

Recently she was also named to the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, where she will have further opportunities to influence national policy and also to sing the praises of N.C. State.

With Fox’s stellar record of excellence and recognition in academics, some diehard Wolfpackers wondered about her support and commitment to rebuilding State’s athletics program.

Those who watch her vigorous and enthusiastic cheering at Wolfpack games have no doubts about her support for athletics. In fact, at the chancellor’s reception before her first N.C. State football game, she proclaimed that the Wolfpack would be satisfied with no less than a national championship. “We have won the cheerleading national championship,” she points out proudly.

She believes in athletics, just as in academics. “It is not OK to be mediocre,” she says. “We must be in a position to be able to win in every contest. That is true not only in athletics, but throughout the university.”

Former trustee chairman York calls her “N.C. State’s No. 1 fan.” Her toughness and commitment to winning or at least being in the position to be the victor in each game came to the forefront when she personally fired the likeable football coach, Mike O’Cain. She received some criticism for going to his home to deliver the news — perhaps a bad rap since she felt that was more humane and more private than summoning him to her very public office.                    

The hiring of the popular and successful Chuck Amato, a former State football star and graduate, to succeed O’Cain is one of Fox’s top accomplishments in the eyes of Wolfpack supporters. She hired Lee Fowler to be the new athletics director when Les Robinson departed for The Citadel. Fox and Fowler work well together. While she believes in letting key staff manage their operation with little interference, it is clear that Fox realizes her legacy at State will be determined partially by the athletics program. Therefore, she retains a strong interest in its operations since she is ultimately held accountable.

Fowler says of his boss, “I have been at N.C. State a little over a year now and have found her to be very helpful and always accessible. She allows her executive officers and deans to run their own departments, but is always available for advice as needed.”

Fox is known nationally and internationally for her work as a scientist. In fact, her reputation and her service as a science adviser to Texas governor George W. Bush prompted widespread speculation last year that the new president would entice her to come to the White House as his science adviser.

While she received national attention and media speculation about the potential job, it was clear to most insiders that Fox intended to stay in Raleigh. She did travel to The White House to discuss a possible position and it is thought she could be Bush’s science adviser if she had wanted the job.

In a memo to  trustees last March, she wrote, “We are well on our way toward our goal to be the nation’s leading land-grant institution. N.C. State can reach even greater heights, and I am committed to staying the course here in Raleigh.”

Undoubtedly, she will continue to be a player in science on the national level. For example, she was among nine people nationally who was named in June as Fellows of the Association for Women in Science. The national nonprofit group is dedicated to achieving equity and full participation for women in all fields of science and technology.

UNC President Molly Broad, who selected Fox for the State post with assistance from the university’s search committee, says, “It is not insignificant that for the first time in its history, the 16-campus University of North Carolina boasts a chancellor who is a member of the distinguished National Academy of Sciences. Chancellor Fox’s scientific stature represents a great strategic advantage for building the strongest plan for the future quality and mission of NCSU.”

The chancellor’s management style can be described as direct. Not one to waste time, she admits to being data driven when it comes to making decisions. “I want to have the facts, and I become frustrated when the facts are not available for decision-making.”

She pursues the vision developed by her team — many of whom are new either to the university or to their current positions — with an air of confidence and determination. She has little patience with people who are not prepared when she questions them, perhaps because she is both determined and inpatient about making State a national leader in higher education.

Fox has required planning and goal-setting in every department. She has involved the trustees in meaningful ways, and she has listened to the university’s constituencies in the state and elsewhere.

A former colleague in Texas, Dr. Norman Hackerman, says, “Chancellor Fox is a clear thinker and therefore an able problem solver. She is resolute and sticks to her conclusions unless shown by superior reasoning that another conclusion is better. She is a very effective policymaker and manager, and at the same time she is an able and dedicated educator and scientist.

What’s next for the Fox tenure at N.C. State? “We’re in the silent phase of a major capital campaign which will deal with quality of life issues,” she says. “We want to make this a terrific institution, not merely a good one.”

She will continue to push for higher quality students and proudly points out the 3.94 average GPA and 1,190 SAT score for this year’s freshman class. “Like many public institutions, our graduation rate is not as high as it should be. Part of it is due to many of our students being able to get good jobs after only two years of training on our campus.”

Fox enjoys talking and listening to students. She can be expected to turn up almost anywhere at anytime on campus. On moving-in or moving-out days each year, she can often be seen greeting students and parents and actually helping move furniture and clothes. “Today’s students have a terrific work ethic — much stronger than in Texas,” the chancellor points out. “Students learn differently today. They are much more image-oriented. They don’t read as much.”

Because of Fox’s national reputation and the progress State is making under her dynamic leadership, there will always be the possibility of job offers perhaps too attractive to turn down.

However, there is still the national championship in football to attain. There are prestigious national academic rankings and organizations to be admitted to, such as the prestigious Association of American Universities.

Then, too, there’s the short drive to the Fox-Whitesell home in Pinehurst and the goal to break 100 consistently and for Chancellor Fox to beat Professor Whitesell on the golf course.

What better life could there be elsewhere? 

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