New Leader

Joe Urgo

Joe Urgo, who has served UNC Asheville as provost since 2014, begins the new year in a new role: interim chancellor.

Urgo is no stranger to the top leadership position – he served as acting president of Hamilton College in central New York and then was president of St. Mary’s College of Maryland before coming to UNC Asheville. He also performed important administrative capacities at other universities including Hamilton College and the University of Mississippi.

Having also served for decades as a professor of literature, he also maintains his passion for higher learning. He earned his Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University and has published scholarly examinations of American novelists William Faulkner and Willa Cather. And during some of his semesters as provost at UNC Asheville, he made time to teach literature courses, allowing him to keep growing as a scholar and professor and connecting directly with students.

He says he plans to remain accessible to students even as he assumes his new responsibilities. “This is not a huge bureaucracy – you can talk to the provost, you can talk to the chancellor,” he says. “Going to a school where you can talk directly to those in these positions is valuable experience when you’re out building your career. Going to talk to the CEO of a company or a state representative is not as daunting because you realize they are human beings and you came from a university that encouraged those kinds of conversations.”

And having gotten to know the faculty during his years as provost, Urgo has become a big admirer of those who teach here. “The commitment to student success on the part of the faculty here is phenomenal – the faculty that choose to make a career here have chosen to make a specific commitment to the welfare, well-being and success of their students. We see that in the longevity of our faculty members, some of whom have been here 30, 35 and 40 years. That’s an astounding record in this day and age, and they do that because they are committed to our students.”

Urgo is a champion of liberal arts education and an unabashed supporter of the arts component, particularly as a means to deepen the strong connections between UNC Asheville and the city of Asheville. “The River Arts District has tremendous potential and will become a dominant force in this region as it grows and blossoms,” he notes. “We are advocates of the arts here on this campus and we have a tremendous appreciation of arts, both performing arts and individual arts, through the new media program, with a music program, and drama program. Those are all areas of rich potential collaboration with the city.

“In an era when people sometimes think of the arts as frivolous, we need to make a point over and over again that art is not an ornament, it’s what life is about. Connecting with the arts, being able to express yourself and your aesthetic vision, those are not incidental things in one’s life. They can be the centerpiece in one’s life and they can sustain life – whether in business or medicine or law – it is enriched by one’s appreciation and knowledge of an aesthetic dimension of life. With our new degree in arts management we’re going to be producing artists and managers who combine those two worlds together, becoming further examples of advocating for the arts nationally. I’m excited about the future of the arts,” says Urgo, who offered these comments during a discussion that will be excerpted in UNC Asheville’s soon-to-be published annual Chancellor’s Report.

Urgo also is excited about UNC Asheville’s future and his new role as interim chancellor, and he offers this vision of servant leadership, UNC Asheville-style: “This is a campus in which students will learn that the definition of a leader is not that you get to boss people around, but it’s that you inspire others to do their best work, or you welcome solutions, options, and opportunities. That’s the kind of leadership we want to cultivate on campus.”

With former Chancellor Mary K. Grant now serving as president of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Massachusetts, and Provost Urgo becoming interim chancellor, Karin Peterson, professor and chair of sociology and anthropology, is now the acting provost.

A national search is underway for UNC Asheville’s next permanent chancellor. You can learn more about the search at

 Students are welcome to join Urgo for coffee and conversation at "A Cuppa Joe with Joe" from 10:30-11:30 a.m. on Tuesdays at Argo Tea.