A message from Dean Mike Smith: “Time for a change”

Mike Smith in front of shelves of books

In January 2022, Dean Mike Smith announced plans to step down from his position at the end of the calendar year.

Smith has led the UNC School of Government for 30 years. As one of the longest-serving deans in Carolina’s modern history, Smith has expanded the School’s capacity in the fields of management and leadership, finance, and administration. These efforts enabled the School to launch major new programs in areas including public technology, environmental finance, community and economic development, data-driven policy analysis, and more. His work negotiated the successful transition of the Master of Public Administration program to the School in 1997, and he was an integral part of helping launch the fully online MPA degree in 2013.

Smith has driven the diversification of the School’s funding base. His leadership allowed the School to exceed its $50 million Campaign for Carolina goal in late 2021.

Smith has championed the School’s core values of neutrality, non-advocacy, and responsiveness, allowing the institution to become a bastion of public service and engaged scholarship on the UNC campus and across the state of North Carolina. Under his leadership, the School has become the largest and most comprehensive university-based local government training, advisory, and research organization in the United States and just celebrated its 90th anniversary. 

Smith has been a member of the School of Government faculty—originally the Institute of Government—since 1978 and was named its director in 1992. When the Institute became known as the School of Government in 2001, Smith was named dean and has held that position continually to this day.

Below is a letter Smith penned that shares his decision and plans for the coming months.


Clients, colleagues, and friends of the School of Government,

I am writing to let you know that I am stepping down as dean of the UNC School of Government effective December 31, 2022. I have never been more certain of a decision—it is the right time for me, and I believe it is the right time for the School.

Notwithstanding my clarity about this decision, it still feels bittersweet. By the time I step down as dean, the School will have been a central part of my life for 44 years, and I will have been in this leadership role for 30 years.

For many years, I have focused on supporting faculty and staff in advancing the School’s mission. There have been so many changes in what we do and how we do it. I have not always been certain about the right thing to do, but I have always known the right question to ask—"Is it good for the School of Government?” Not “Is it comfortable for me?” and not “Will everyone agree with the decision?” Not “Have we done it this way in the past?” Asking whether a course of action is good for the School doesn’t always lead to a clear answer, or even necessarily the right answer, but focusing on the right question increases the chance of success.  A complementary question always has been “How can I support faculty and staff as they work to carry out the mission?” I will continue asking those two questions as we move through the coming year.

Given how long I’ve been leading this organization, my announcement inevitably will raise some questions. I want to take a moment to address some of these topics with all of you.

My decision to step down: It seems odd to address whether stepping down is my choice given that I’ve been doing this job, well, since basically forever. I am told that some will wonder. So, yes, it is entirely my decision. I want more time to do other things. For the sake of the School, it is time for another leader to bring fresh ideas and new ways of leading. John Sanders did things differently from Albert Coates, and I’ve done things differently from John Sanders. Yet each of us focused on the same thing—advancing our mission for North Carolina. I am confident the same will be true for whoever follows me, and I am equally confident it will be good for the School.

Support by campus leadership: The current campus leadership understands and values the School’s unique mission for North Carolina. That bodes well for the future. Our campus leaders have been incredibly supportive. Throughout my career, I have reported to nine provosts—soon to be 10—and all have come from different academic backgrounds and experiences. All have valued the distinctive work that we do for North Carolina public officials.

Search for my successor: When I was selected nearly 30 years ago there was a national search led by a campus-wide search committee. There will be a national search for my successor. I have given lots of advance notice because campus leadership wanted plenty of time to conduct a thorough and successful search. Of course, I will have absolutely no involvement with the search process. It will be up to the provost and chancellor to appoint the committee and decide whether a search firm might be helpful in identifying good candidates. The search committee typically is composed of faculty from across the campus, including a small number from within the school.

The School is in good shape:  The School could not be in a stronger position to manage a transition in leadership. Our faculty and professional staff have never been stronger. The same goes for our leadership team, whose only agenda is to support faculty and staff as they carry out our mission. Notwithstanding budget cuts last year, we are in a strong position financially.  We have strong support from our clients and many other partners, including a terrific foundation board. Leadership can make a difference, but the School has thrived throughout its history because of our dedicated and talented faculty and staff.

Am I retiring?  I’m stepping down as dean, but I have not decided if I will fully retire at the end of December 2022. I will decide about retirement after considering my interests and options later in the year. Whatever my decision, I will support the School in whatever way my successor might find appropriate and helpful.

I loved being a faculty member and I have loved serving as dean at the School of Government. The School is not perfect and there always will be room for improvement, but it is a special place that makes a difference in the lives of all North Carolinians. It is special because of our faculty and staff, who are devoted to the mission and who aspire to work together as One School, and because of the broad support we receive from our alumni, friends, and clients. It has been my honor and pleasure to lead the School, and I look forward to continuing that work during the coming year.


Michael R. Smith
Dean, UNC School of Government