As a senior running back for the Drake University Bulldogs, Gilliam was having the game of his life against Colorado until a fateful hit sent him over the bench with a set of broken ribs.
“I sat up and said, ‘I can’t breathe. This hurts like all get out. And guess what? I’m taking the GREs next week.’ That was it,” Gilliam says in the accompanying video.
A political scientist by training, Gilliam went on to launch a 33-year career first at the University of Wisconsin as a young assistant professor, and later at UCLA as a professor, director of two centers, dean and assistant to the chancellor.
As Dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA, he was an on-air political commentator for a Los Angeles TV station for several years – Gilliam is no stranger to a TV camera.
“I have an eye on what’s going on,” he says.
At Wisconsin and UCLA, “I got an up-close and personal look at what the quest for excellence really like,” he says.
“For our campus, I think as we’re more aspirational in nature, I think it’s allowed me to start to identify a vision that asks people to raise their sight lines, to raise their eyes up as to what’s possible.”
It wasn’t until he arrived at Greensboro, though, that Gilliam came up with a fun, highly unorthodox way to get to know students.
“My greatest fear about being chancellor was that I’d be stuck in my office and there’d be a long line of supplicants coming in, either asking me for something or complaining to me,” he says.
He saw UNCG grounds crews driving cool electric golf carts. So he asked for one – and thus began impromptu rides in a vehicle that students dubbed “The Warrior Whip.”
“I’d just leave the office and go get in it and just go up to students and say, ‘Want a ride?’ I take ‘em all over the place – wherever they want to go. Library, their dorm, cafeteria…,” he says.
In the process, Gilliam learns students’ names, hometowns and majors. “And then at the end of the ride, ‘OK you’ve got 60 seconds with the chancellor – shoot. What do you got to tell me? What do I need to know?’” he says.
The chancellor’s passengers have also included UNC President Margaret Spellings and Paul Chelimo, the UNCG alum who won a silver medal in the 5,000 meters at the 2016 Olympics.
Like that jolt on the football field, Gilliam says newcomers are frequently stunned when they first visit UNCG.
“This place is terrific,” he says. “That’s why every time someone encounters us, they go, ‘Gee, this is so much better than I expected.’”