For many years, a photo pinned to the wall of the News Services office showed Mike McFarland crouching on the floor at the National Press Club in Washington, holding a small tape recorder above his head to catch the words of then-Chancellor James Moeser. The caption read, “Our man in the shadows.”
McFarland, now director of University relations, has toiled behind the scenes for the past three decades to protect and defend Carolina’s reputation – with facts and figures.
“I just want to be sure it’s right. I want to double-check the facts. If there’s math involved, I want to recheck the numbers,” McFarland said. “I’m definitely a stickler for details. I’m not really able to dial that back. If it means a couple of extra phone calls, that’s OK with me.”
McFarland’s often anonymous work was hard for his boss to describe when he nominated McFarland for the 2016 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.
“Much of what I can say about Mike’s three decades at Carolina is probably safest left unsaid,” Vice Chancellor of Communications and Public Affairs Joel Curran wrote. “We should all just say, ‘Thank you, Mike,’ and breathe a sigh of relief that he was on duty when his University required the full measure of his talent and commitment.”
McFarland only spent two years at Carolina as an undergraduate – he transferred here from Brevard College – but it would be hard to find someone more devoted to his alma mater.
“Mike truly loves Carolina and we are, without a doubt, a better University because of his contributions,” Tanya Moore, senior director of communications planning and special projects, wrote in her nomination letter. “Mike is not a person who seeks the spotlight, so many people are unaware of the breadth and depth of what he’s done for our campus.”
Knowing McFarland’s preference for the shadows, Curran had to trick the honoree into coming to an office celebration of his Massey Award by disguising it as a morning meeting. Trapped, McFarland had to listen and smile as Curran read the Massey nominations to his colleagues.
Afterward, when asked to reflect on his now nearly 31 years at Carolina, the bespectacled, mostly silver-haired McFarland responded, “All I can say is that my hair was jet black when I first came here.”
Growing up in academia
Part of the reason McFarland is so comfortable on campus is that he grew up on one. Both his parents were faculty members at Appalachian State University in Boone.
“I grew up as a faculty kid and did a lot of stuff on campus at ASU. After school, I would go to my parents’ offices and hang out,” he said.
McFarland earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and English and spent the next six months as a general assignment reporter and photographer for The Messenger of Madison. He returned to Chapel Hill in November of that year as a reporter for The Chapel Hill Newspaper. His primary beat eventually became the University, and, in covering UNC System President Bill Friday and Chancellor Christopher Fordham, he learned about campus politics. One of his former teachers in the journalism school advised him to get some experience outside Chapel Hill, so in 1985 McFarland went to The Gastonia Gazette. He had been a reporter there only four months when he got a call about an opening in the University’s news bureau, as it was called then.
“I jumped at the chance to come back to Chapel Hill,” McFarland recalled. Doing public relations for the University “was a very different situation than with a power company or tobacco company or something like that. I had no problem representing Carolina.”
McFarland began as the health affairs editor, moving up to be news services director and simultaneously earning his master’s degree in public relations. He was named director of University communications in 2001 and twice served as interim associate vice chancellor for University relations, including a yearlong stint during the transition between Chancellors Holden Thorp and Carol L. Folt. He became director of University relations after Curran arrived in 2013.
McFarland has worked for seven chancellors, seeing Carolina at its best, its worst and its saddest. He remembered “three really terrible early morning phone calls”: the 1996 Phi Gamma Delta fire that killed five students on graduation day, the 1999 death of Chancellor Michael Hooker from cancer and the 2008 murder of Student Body President Eve Carson.
“In every case, someone from our office had to be on point. I wasn’t the only one,” he said. But in the end it was McFarland who worked with the families and the media on the day of the fraternity fire, who wrote Hooker’s obituary and who helped send the University’s first campus-wide emergency text message to help police identify a shooting victim who turned out to be Carson.
Then, starting in 2010, the campus was confronted with a nearly two-year joint investigation with the NCAA involving agents, amateurism, academic misconduct and unethical behavior. That was later followed by revelations of academic irregularities in the former Department of African and Afro-American Studies, multiple internal reviews and external investigations, intense media coverage, a high volume of public records requests and scrutiny from the University’s accrediting agency. McFarland was among those on the front lines to help the campus address those difficult issues.
The constant negative attention over the next several years took its toll on Tar Heels everywhere, including McFarland. “For folks who are alums, when there are problems, it hurts to know that there were shortcomings and things that should have been done differently,” he said. “For the kind of work we do, you just kind of have to put that aside and approach it very professionally. There’s always going to be something controversial that happens here. Helping address that is just what we do here in the Communications and Public Affairs office.”
McFarland was among the campus leaders who pushed hard to develop Alert Carolina, the multipronged emergency communications system begun in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The system includes campus sirens and a website hosted off-campus through which communicators can simultaneously send out emergency messages by email, text, social media and website banners.
Before Alert Carolina, the University didn’t have a way to communicate quickly across campus in emergencies. “I took that really seriously, to make sure people were informed that they needed to take some action to be safe,” McFarland said. “I would like to think that it has sent a strong message about how much the University values safety.”
He’s proud to have helped get out the word about bold initiatives like the Carolina Covenant, the Tar Heel bus tour for new faculty members and Chancellor Hooker’s 100-county tour of the state. Now that the communications office has grown and diversified, McFarland’s primary role is the University’s institutional memory and serving as a key strategist on helping his colleagues manage University issues.
“He has an uncanny ability to recall details from the past, and he is always willing to share and help others,” Moore said.
And while McFarland still contributes to special projects like the University’s response to its accrediting agency about academic irregularities, he’s no longer 24/7. He has time to spend with wife, Jennifer, and daughters Margaret and Elisabeth, who graduated from Carolina in May. He plays golf when he can, cheers for the Tar Heels and has taken up cycling as a hobby.
But it’s his power walking on the job that sticks in the mind of longtime colleague Lynn Williford, assistant provost for institutional research and assessment. “Often I’ve spotted him walking toward South Building for a meeting, always at Olympic-type speeds, so focused on getting the job done that he never noticed me waving or calling out to say hello,” Williford wrote in her nomination. “That’s the image I will always hold of Mike McFarland – a man on a mission for Carolina.”
Home: Chapel Hill
Job: Director of University Relations
UNC employee since: 1985
Interesting fact: McFarland’s wife, Jennifer, works at Habitat for Humanity of Durham County and for the past four years, someone in the family has worked on a Habitat building project in Honduras. He went in 2014, helping build houses for two single mothers who were also sisters. “I’d never taken the time out to do something like that before, and it was very cool.”
What it meant to receive a Massey: “It’s an incredible honor. I’m just so grateful that Mr. Massey had the foresight, that long ago, to even think about employees as being such an important part of the University. I was really touched. It just seemed really in keeping with what I know is the spirit of this place. I understand that may sound really corny, but I really mean it.”
By Susan Hudson, University Gazette
Originally published by University Gazette: July 20, 2016