Folt drew national attention for her decision in January to remove a pedestal from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that had been the base of a monument to Confederate soldiers known as Silent Sam.
Protesters had toppled the bronze statue in August, decrying it as a symbol of white supremacy. Others said the monument should be preserved in accord with state law and in recognition of North Carolina’s history. The stone pedestal remained until Folt ordered crews to haul it away.
Folt left UNC-Chapel Hill abruptly in January — months ahead of her initial timetable for transition — after leaders of the UNC System Board of Governors expressed displeasure at her actions.
As USC’s 12th president, Folt will lead a university facing myriad challenges.
C.L. Max Nikias, who had been president of USC since 2010, was forced out last August amid turmoil over the university’s handling of controversies including allegations of abuse by a USC gynecologist and the resignations of two medical school deans in connection with alleged misconduct. Now, USC is at the center of a scandal involving alleged efforts to help children of the wealthy secure admission to prestigious universities through cheating and bribery.
Wanda M. Austin, an aeronautics and systems engineering expert, has served as interim president of USC during this school year.
“I have no doubt that under the enterprising and accomplished leadership of Dr. Folt, USC is set to embark on an exciting, upward, and unprecedented journey along with cultural renewal and positive change,” Rick J. Caruso, USC’s board chair, said in a statement.
Frederick J. Ryan Jr., publisher and chief executive of The Washington Post, is also a member of the USC board.
Folt, 67, led UNC for 5½ years. Previously, she was a professor, dean of the faculty, provost and interim president at Dartmouth College. She holds a bachelor’s degree in aquatic biology and a master’s degree in biology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She earned a doctorate in ecology at UC-Davis.
As an undergraduate, Folt started in community college and worked her way through school as a waitress — a path that resonates with many at USC who come from working-class backgrounds.
She praised USC’s commitment to access for disadvantaged students — what she called the “heart of a public” institution — in a private one.
“Of course, I also am aware that our community is deeply troubled by a number of immediate challenges,” she said in a statement. “I assure you that we will meet these challenges together, directly, decisively and with honesty and candor. This is a moment of responsibility and opportunity, and we will seize them both.”
The choice drew swift praise from USC faculty.
“It’s a great choice,” said Ariela Gross, a professor of law and history. “I think at Chapel Hill, Carol Folt showed herself to be a person of great integrity, someone with moral leadership, someone who wasn’t afraid to get out in front of issues — and also a really caring leader and teacher who worked with students and with faculty in an educational community.”
Shaun Harper, a professor of education and business, said: “I am relieved that we have hired a new president who has experience leading an institution in recovering from massive scandals. Hopefully President Folt will help us maintain all that makes USC such an excellent university, while holding all in our campus community accountable for acting with the highest levels of integrity.”
On campus, students glanced at an email announcing Folt’s appointment and then resumed studying and research.
Omair Qureshi, a biological studies major who is heading to medical school next year, said he was heartened to hear about Folt and the stand she took on removing the Confederate monument. He hopes Folt can help mend the school’s brand.
Students had received an email Tuesday saying tuition was rising because the value of a USC degree was increasing. “I don’t know if that’s true anymore,” Qureshi said, adding that things have changed since he was a freshman. “USC was sort of untainted then.”
Rini Sampath, who graduated from USC in 2016 and served as president of the student body, said she was disappointed the university chose another president without input from students. Sampath, 24 and a management consultant in the District, said the university has a record of ignoring students and staff, something she hopes will change with Folt.
“We can’t forget that students weren’t included in this search. Students and faculty don’t really have a true voice in university decision-making,” Sampath said.
Some of the scandals the university is grappling with grew out of a refusal to listen to students, she said, adding the controversies are unlikely to abate unless it changes its tack.
William Tierney, a professor of higher education, called Folt a logical selection.
“The university at this point needs someone who knows how to be president,” Tierney said. “That’s certainly a strength of Carol Folt.”
Noting Folt’s role in the Silent Sam controversy, Tierney said: “Although she had problems with her board, she stood up for the kinds of values we need.”
Anderson and Svrluga reported from Washington.