UNC faculty gets outside Chapel Hill for a bus tour of NC’s successes and challenges

After an 11-year hiatus, UNC-Chapel Hill faculty and senior administrators went back on the road again last week, piling into buses for a three-day tour across North Carolina.

The 90 participants left campus last week and went out into 26 communities from Asheville to Rocky Mount to Wilmington. The goal was to learn more about the students and state they serve by visiting local high schools, churches, barbecue joints and healthcare facilities.

“It’s an opportunity for faculty to better understand how they could have an impact there or students who might want to come,” interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said. “This is around our desire to be the kind of university that people are proud of and can promote scholarship and service and what we’re already doing to address the concerns of the state.”

Guskiewicz brought back the Tar Heel bus tour tradition, which ran from 1997 to 2008 and was started under former Chancellor Michael Hooker. Guskiewicz made it a priority after he was announced as interim chancellor earlier this year.

“We thought it was time we head back out and strengthen our partnership with the citizens of North Carolina,” Guskiewicz said. “The goal is to try to bring back new inspiration grounded in service that can help shape the researching and teaching of our faculty.”

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UNC-Chapel Hill faculty went on a three-day bus tour over fall break to visit different communities around the state from the mountains to the coast. UNC-Chapel Hill

Most of the faculty who applied to go on the trip were new to the university or from out of state and wanted to learn more about North Carolina. Others saw it as an opportunity to get outside the bubble in Chapel Hill and see how UNC faculty are involved in service and outreach across the state.

“We talked to people, learned about local challenges, local issues and then with our colleagues thought creatively about how UNC is engaging with the needs of people in those communities,” said Lloyd Kramer, history professor and chairman of the faculty. “We learned from people in those communities, but also could share among ourselves ideas for possible new initiatives.”

Where did the Tar Heel bus tour travel?

Last week, three buses, each wrapped in a specially designed Carolina blue logo, took off in different directions.

One headed east to Rocky Mount to explore programs such as Project GRACE for improving health equity through community-based research, a youth data-training organization called MAPSCorps Project and a mammography clinic. That bus then went to New Bern to learn about how UNC is helping towns better prepare for storms, improve hurricane recovery efforts and monitor water quality at the UNC Institute of Marine Science. Then they headed back toward the capital to meet with Gov. Roy Cooper and discuss business growth in Burlington.

UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members and administrators went on the Neuse River with the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences on Oct. 17 as part of the Tar Heel Bus Tour. UNC-Chapel Hill

The second group took the southeast route to Siler City, where they heard about immigration issues and affordable housing issues affecting Latino communities in the region. The bus took faculty to the Lumbee Tribes Boys and Girls Club in Pembroke and on an agriculture tour of local farms in Sampson County. They also met with service members in Fort Bragg, discussed human trafficking in Fayetteville and learned about the Greensboro Health Disparities Collaborative while at the International Civil Rights Museum.

The third bus took faculty toward the mountains in Western North Carolina with a stop in the financial hub of Charlotte. Faculty members who went on that route out saw the devastation of the shuttered textile mill in Kannapolis. They met with Cherokee Indians and learned about the economic impact of the local casino and about UNC law student pro bono services. They heard about how people are fighting the opioid epidemic in Wilkesboro and new rural health care initiatives and college advising for low-income students in Eden.

“It spurred both understanding and empathy and ideas, especially among faculty of the way they might partner and ways UNC can help or do projects in different communities,” said Rachelle Feldman, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid.

Feldman was new to UNC and the state when she took the job three years ago. She went on the trip to understand the state’s diverse population and issues to better help a range of students attend and succeed at Carolina.

“This university is for all the people in North Carolina, not just the people that look or think or act a certain way,” Feldman said.

The trip helped faculty see firsthand the public research university’s mission to serve the state.

Kramer said public service is a key part of the faculty’s identity. But that engagement can get lost when they’re connecting through a conference call rather than sitting in a room eating a boxed lunch with someone.

“We’re all very absorbed in our own silos. This trip gave all of us a chance to escape,” Kramer said. “And it helped faculty to think creatively about how their own research and teaching can help further enhance that distinctive public university mission.”

Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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