UNC’s Interim Chancellor Lee H. Roberts


By Laurie Paolicelli

Roberts attended the Louisville-Carolina men’s basketball game on Jan. 17. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill).

In January, the University of North Carolina (UNC) System President Peter Hans named Lee H. Roberts to serve as interim chancellor at the University of North Carolina, assuming the role following the departure of Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz for Michigan State University. There was some nail-biting around town at the announcement: Chapel Hill, after all, has always leaned left, and Roberts served as budget director for former Governor Pat McCrory, who leans right. Roberts is also a graduate of Duke University, but the indiscretions of youth should always be forgiven.

There is an ethos in Chapel Hill, culturally and politically, that argues against the installment of an outsider whose vision for the university may be inconsistent with its values. And regardless of his capabilities — he has many — the baggage he brings with him may cause in even a casual observer a measured raising of the eyebrow. But we should look a bit deeper, for who among us would want to be estimated without examination?

Roberts is the son of the late Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts, a professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. Cokie, who died in 2019 from complications from breast cancer, embodied the essence and motto of North Carolina: to be, rather than to seem. His father is also a columnist, TV and radio analyst, and a best-selling author. Both Steven and Cokie

Lee is the son of the late Cokie Roberts, shown here in Cleveland, July 20, 2016 with Ann Compton White House correspondent for ABC NEWS at the Republican National Convention.

Cokie Robert’s life story is awe-inspiring. A bestselling author and Emmy Award winner, Cokie Roberts was one of NPR’s most recognizable voices and is considered one of a handful of pioneering female journalists — along with Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, and Susan Stamberg — who helped shape the public broadcaster’s sound and culture at a time when few women held prominent roles in journalism. Having so many female voices at a national broadcaster was nothing short of revolutionary in the 1970s.

Cokie Roberts was the only member of her immediate family not to run for Congress. She considered her role as a journalist and political analyst as her way of giving back.

Born in New Orleans as Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs, she was given the nickname Cokie by her brother, Thomas, who had trouble pronouncing Corinne.

Her father was Thomas Hale Boggs Sr., a former Democratic majority leader of the House who served in Congress for more than three decades before he disappeared on a campaign flight in Alaska in 1972. Her mother, Lindy Claiborne Boggs, took her husband’s seat and served for 17 years. Lindy Boggs also served as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

In light of this legacy, what might be Lee H. Roberts’ mission and, naturally one wonders, did the apple fall far from the tree?

First let’s look at his background. He served as budget director for the state of North Carolina from 2014 to 2016, helping oversee a successful referendum for the largest higher education bond issue since 2000. Since 2021 he has been a member of the UNC Board of Governors, working closely with System officials to implement a more comprehensive budget model and improve measures of student success. He also served on the State Board of Community Colleges, the State Banking Commission, the Board of Visitors at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, and the Golden LEAF Foundation Board.

“Lee Roberts is a patient leader, a generous listener, and someone raised with the values of public service,” Hans said. “He knows how to find common ground on challenging issues, and he brings out the best in everyone around him. He is deeply committed to the university, and I am excited to collaborate with him in supporting the magnificent work happening at Carolina.”

Roberts grew up in Bethesda, Maryland. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Duke University and a law degree from Georgetown University. He lives in Raleigh with his wife, Liza, the former editor of Walter Magazine and author of Art of the State: Celebrating the Visual Art of North Carolina, from UNC Press.

The Roberts Family on vacation. Photo courtesy of moco360.media (Montgomery county)

In his father’s book, Cokie, A Life Well Lived, Steve Roberts writes about a family that remains committed to service. One of Cokie’s good friends summed it up when she said she wanted to wear a bracelet that said W.W.C.D. What Would Cokie Do?

The question now is what will Lee Roberts do. It’s early in his tenure, but so far he has been friendly, transparent, and warm in a way that would make his parents proud.

Of course, the first thing listed on his onboarding packet was to learn to say, with fervor, “Go Tar Heels.” Check that box.

Jennifer Player, Habitat for Humanity; Mike Clayton, President of East Chapel Hill Rotary; Lee H. Roberts, Interim Chancellor of UNC; Jim Heavner; and Dick Baddour, former Athletic Director for UNC.

Related reading:

Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR

Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation by Cokie Roberts

“Art of the State: Celebrating the Visual Art of North Carolina,” UNC Press, Nov. 2022. Author,” by Liza Roberts.

Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families Hardcover by Cokie Roberts (Author), Steven V. Roberts (Author)

Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

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