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New Center for Regional Excellence Director Forged by Experiences in Civic Government

By Brendan O'Hallarn

When Ron Carlee was a college student, he had an idea that he wanted to be a professor. But it was an experience far earlier that helped inform the lessons he has passed on to students in classrooms.

Carlee was a young boy in Birmingham when the Alabama city was one of the flashpoints of the civil rights movement. One of his early memories is of the Birmingham bus boycott.

Vivid memories of that time of political and social upheaval helped shape Carlee and shifted his emphasis during his undergraduate years from English to journalism.

"I was planning to go to graduate school in journalism, to save the world like (Washington Post reporters Bob) Woodward and (Carl) Bernstein," said Carlee, who came to Old Dominion University last summer to found the Center for Regional Excellence at the Strome College of Business.

But after he was wait-listed for graduate school, Carlee took a position working for the mayoral campaign of a member of Birmingham's City Council, David Vann. "A decade earlier, during the civil rights era, David Vann was a young businessperson who saw clearly how resistance to equal rights was leading to things like boycotts, and really killing the city. He helped literally change the city's form of government and negotiate an end to Jim Crow," Carlee said.

Vann was elected mayor of Birmingham in 1975. He appointed Carlee, then 21, as an assistant to the mayor.

Exposed to the front lines of how municipal government works - and can help the lives of citizens - Carlee forged a long career in city and county management, from Birmingham to Arlington, Va., to Charlotte, N.C..

Jeff Tanner, dean of Old Dominion's Strome College of Business, hired Carlee to launch the Center for Regional Excellence, which Tanner envisions as a body that will help the college play a leading role in economic development and enhancing the quality of life in Hampton Roads.

"Ron is uniquely qualified, given his years of experience as a city manager and his national reputation in the profession of city management, to create a center that will strengthen our region," Tanner said.

"His leadership in developing the Center for Regional Excellence is an important component in accomplishing that leadership role for the Strome College, complementing what we already do with the Center for Economic Analysis & Policy and our active engagement with the business community."

Throughout his professional career, Carlee continued to imagine a career as a college professor. He earned advanced degrees, including a doctorate in public administration in 1995, and was an adjunct faculty member at George Washington University while he worked for the City of Arlington.

His appointment at Old Dominion follows three eventful years as city manager for the City of Charlotte, which brought Carlee back to his activist roots.

During that time, the North Carolina city's mayor and council adopted a non-discrimination ordinance, which prompted then-Gov. Pat McCrory and the North Carolina General Assembly to pass HB2, the law prohibiting transgender people from choosing which bathrooms to use and preventing cities from passing anti-discrimination laws.

In a letter to Charlotte's mayor and council announcing his departure, Carlee wrote that he was "especially proud of the Council's action ... to amend the City's non-discrimination ordinance to provide protections for the LBGT community."

Now in his first full-time faculty role, Carlee wants to fill a gap that exists at many universities - few courses are taught in local government. "I want our students to know that they can make a difference in society through local government," he said.

As the Center for Regional Excellence begins operation this year, Carlee envisions it offering three services to the community - provide thought leadership on issues that the region has wrestled with for decades, such as transportation; act as a facilitator to bring together organizations without a history of cooperating; and train workers, both through degree programs and certificates, to add to the professional workforce in local government.

"This is a beautiful and diverse region with many assets and a bright future if we all work together," Carlee said. "I'm excited to help ODU play a role in shaping the future of Hampton Roads."

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