UNCG provost to step down as she battles cancer, stands by controversial program review

UNC Greensboro Provost Debbie Storrs will step down from her role at the university at the end of the month as she fights stage-four breast cancer.

Chancellor Frank Gilliam announced Storrs’ departure in a campus message Wednesday, saying Storrs had authorized him to share that she will begin disability leave. Storrs will leave her posts as provost executive vice chancellor and will not return to the faculty, she said in a separate message.

Storrs began her role as the university’s provost in June 2021. She said in her message to campus that she was diagnosed with the disease in January 2022, noting that “some” at the university knew of the diagnosis as she continued to work while receiving treatment.

“That she has continued to serve our community with her tireless drive — amid medical treatments and challenging side effects — underscores Provost Storrs’ indomitable courage, commitment, and spirit,” Gilliam said. “She is a visionary leader with a spine of steel. She has been the best person for the provost’s key leadership role during this period of historic change for UNC Greensboro and higher education at large.”

Storrs’ departure comes just months after the university completed an “academic portfolio review” that resulted in 20 academic programs being cut from the university’s offerings and drew criticism from faculty, students and staff. She faced separate faculty votes to censure her and express “no confidence” in her as a result of the review.

But both she and Gilliam stood by the review, and Storrs’ actions during the months-long process, in their messages Wednesday.

“I want to make it abundantly clear that the decision was hers, and hers alone,” Gilliam said. “She has performed admirably and effectively in her role as provost. She has demonstrated the highest level of professionalism and personal integrity.”

Storrs said she is stepping away due to her diagnosis, noting that she would rather join the university community “on the journey into the future” if she was able.

“It’s been the professional honor of a lifetime to walk alongside you in support of our students today and plan for the generations to come,” Storrs said.

Chancellor, provost stand by review as Storrs steps down

Throughout the roughly yearlong program review, Gilliam described the process as a necessary way “to put the university on solid financial footing” following undergraduate enrollment declines and a change to the UNC System’s funding model for its campuses.

“During my time as provost, UNCG has continued to thrive and serve as a path of opportunity for our students and faculty. At the same time, we have experienced enrollment decline, budget reductions, and an uncertain future, and have deployed strategic methods to plan for the future, including an academic portfolio review,” Storrs said Wednesday.

The program review launched protests and outcry from members of the university who consistently raised concerns about the process by which the review was conducted, saying it was not transparent and that they received mixed messaging about why the review is needed and the possible outcomes. One professor said the review was “mismanaged by this administration at every stage of the process.”

Storrs said Wednesday she handled her duties in the provost role, which included “maintaining academic excellence; supporting faculty, staff, and students; and balancing our budget” in “an honest, fair, and transparent manner.” She acknowledged that some decisions, including those that led to the discontinuation of academic programs, “will make some angry.”

Storrs said her actions throughout the review “served as a lightning rod for criticism and backlash,” pointing to the no-confidence vote as an example. But she said the “pedestrian” backlash was not constructive.

“I understand that it can temporarily feel satisfying, even empowering, for some faculty members to stage rage, attack leadership, question integrity, and critique change when confronted with a decision not to their liking,” Storrs said. “However, after a year-long, inclusive, and transparent process in response to actual conditions, I have zero confidence in this impulse. Pedestrian oppositional behavior at the end of this stage of our thoughtful process offers no constructive and essential solutions for the future of UNCG.”

Still, Storrs encouraged faculty to remain involved in university affairs and committed to their work.

“The University is deeply fortunate to have a brilliant faculty and staff, and my heartfelt thanks go out to you for your effort and your support. UNCG needs you all to exert your voices, and demand, create, and welcome constructive and thoughtful dialogue committed to solving challenges,” she said. “I have full confidence that, with your commitment, UNCG will emerge emboldened and proud.”

Gilliam announced Wednesday that Senior Vice Provost Alan Boyette would serve as acting provost, effective May 1, until the university names an interim appointment for the role. The university will launch a national search for a permanent provost in August using Isaacson, Miller, an executive search firm.

“For her successor and for all of us, Provost Storrs established a model in her dedication to our students and the communities they represent,” Gilliam said. “The Board of Trustees, leadership team, and I are grateful for her voice of wisdom and calm — unfaltering in her integrity, unflappable in her resolve, incisive in her clarity.”