Rob Christensen

Christensen: UNC’s reputation seems in jeopardy

The Historic South Building and the Old Well on the University of North Carolina campus.
The Historic South Building and the Old Well on the University of North Carolina campus. rwillett@newsobserver.com

When journalist John Gunther was writing his best-selling book “Inside U.S.A.” in 1947, he called Chapel Hill “a kind of intellectual capital for the whole South.’’

This was not an exaggeration. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was where much of the Southern white middle class sent its most promising sons and daughters.

“This institution is not only the single most noteworthy thing in the state,’’ Gunther wrote. “It is one of the best of all American universities.’’

There are several ways to damage a university’s reputation, earned over generations of hard work by thousands of people.

There is scandal, chronic under funding, and political interference.

For UNC, the first two are already a fact. There has been the athletic/academic scandal. There is the parsimony by the General Assembly, which has provided a state appropriation budget of $2.7 billion to the 17-campus UNC system –essentially frozen since 2008-2009 despite the state’s rapid growth. (When inflation is considered, the $2.7 billion of 2008-2009 is now worth $2.1 billion.)

Now there is at least the threat of political interference by the legislature.

It is useful to remind us of UNC’s place in our history. (I did not attend UNC, by the way.)

Though one of the system’s flagship schools is the nation’s oldest public university, UNC-Chapel Hill did not become a great institution until the 1920s, when the legislature began pouring money into the system. North Carolina was a poor state in the 1920s, composed mainly of tobacco and cotton farmers and textile workers – so it was a great leap of faith to find the resources to create a first-rate university.

Between 1918 and 1929, the university’s faculty grew from 78 to 225 and the annual state appropriation grew from $270,000 to $1.3 million. In 1922, UNC became only the second school in the South, after the University of Virginia, to join the prestigious Association of American Universities.

By 1938, there were only four Southern schools in that elite group: UNC, Duke University, U.Va. and the University of Texas. (Today there are 10 Southern schools, with UNC and Duke still the only North Carolina members.)

But it was more than money that made UNC a pre-eminent place. It was the academic freedom that North Carolina’s political leaders allowed UNC.

UNC’s president, Frank Porter Graham (1930-1949) was among the leading liberals in the South. UNC’s sociology department under Howard Odum was providing cutting-edge research on the problems of the South. The UNC Press under William T. Couch was publishing the best books on the South.

Chapel Hill was “the single most glowing exception to broad-based mediocrity in the Southern academic world,” wrote John Egerton in his history of the mid-century South, “Speak Now Against The Day,’’ published in 1994.

Political interference in public Southern universities was a way of life.

As Egerton wrote, University of South Carolina president Samuel Chiles Mitchell had been pushed out of office for not toeing the political line in 1913. Mississippi Gov. Theodore Bilbo booted 179 faculty members and administrators out of the state’s colleges and put political hacks in top posts, causing the University of Mississippi and four other institutions to lose their accreditation. Georgia Gov. Eugene Talmadge did the same thing in Georgia. In the Huey Long era in Louisiana, James M. Smith, the president of LSU, went to prison for malfeasance.

J. William Fulbright, the president of the University of Arkansas and a future U.S. senator, was forced from his post as was Homer Rainey, president of the University of Texas.

Already there are troubling signs of political interference in North Carolina. UNC President Tom Ross is being forced out because he was installed by a Democratic-dominated Board of Governors. Earlier this year, the UNC board closed the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity headed by law professor Gene Nichol, a leading critic of the Republicans running Raleigh.

There is now a proposal floating around the legislature that would allow the General Assembly to insert itself into the selection of a new university president.

Creating a great university system was an act of faith in the future by earlier generations. It paid dividends. We would not have the Research Triangle Park, one of North Carolina’s major economic engines, without it.

Now we will see if this generation can keep the faith.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, robc@nando.com

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