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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Leloudis: For more than two centuries, ‘public’ has been Carolina's guide star


James Leloudis lectures on the purpose of a public university to kick off a weekend of campus-wide University Day activities.

At a lecture in anticipation of University Day, James Leloudis asked the assembled group to repeat after him: “Carolina is America’s first public university.”

In unison, it was clear. The emphasis was strongest on the word “public.” That has been the focus of a Carolina education from the start, said Leloudis, professor of history and associate dean for honors.

Leloudis’ lecture, “What’s a University For? Reflections on Carolina, Past and Present,” was held at the George Watts Hill Alumni Center Thursday (Oct. 10) evening to kick off a weekend of activities to celebrate Carolina’s 220th birthday on University Day, Oct. 12. This year, University Day takes on even more significance with the installation of Carol L. Folt as Carolina’s 11th chancellor.

“For more than two centuries, the word ‘public’ has been our guide star, but its meaning has never been fixed or static,” Leloudis said.

The word has been redefined as each generation has reconsidered the relationship between the University and the larger society that it serves. When Carolina was founded more than two centuries ago, “public” was narrowly defined.

“Only young men of privilege, most of them the sons of a slave-holding elite, studied here,” Leloudis said.

Since then, Carolina’s role as a public university has expanded along with the world, and sometimes ahead of it.

“In 1915, UNC President Edward Kidder Graham outlined his vision for a university that would provide a program of guidance for the state, one that would lift North Carolina from beneath its heavy burdens of poverty, illiteracy and ill health,” Leloudis said.

Later, the GI Bill brought thousands of first-generation students to campus. The civil rights and women’s movements broadened access for African-American and female students. Curriculum changed with the diversifying student body, broadening the scope of offered knowledge.

“This history warrants remembrance particularly now as we look forward to University Day and the installation of a new chancellor,” Leloudis said. “It’s a measure of our achievement and if we choose to use it as such, it can be a compass for charting our future.”

Leloudis offered three principles of the public university to carry Carolina forward.

A Carolina education is a public good and an integral part of American democracy. Because Carolina is public, Leloudis said, the welfare of all is improved. Students who attended under the GI Bill, their children and the baby boomers who followed made discoveries, changed industry, cured diseases and promoted human rights for a more just nation.

“All of that came to pass because of a public investment in students who, a generation or two earlier, would never have imagined coming to Carolina,” he said.

There’s reciprocity in that investment that students should not forget, Leloudis said. “We’re privileged to teach and learn here, thanks to the generosity of hard-working North Carolinians.”

The public university is an instrument for doing the work of the world. This idea is a source of consternation for some, Leloudis said, when the tradition of the liberal arts education comes into question.

The core purpose of a Carolina education, Graham had said, was to develop an intellectual way of life: one that was curious, skeptical and open. Students would go on to prosperous careers and become leaders who would leave the world better than they found it.

“I think I know what he and cousin Frank (Porter Graham) would say if they were here this evening,” Leloudis said. “They would urge us to attend to our students’ development of translational skills.”

To prepare for the future, students should be encouraged to think early on about how they will integrate the knowledge and skills they are acquiring at Carolina, he said. “Students would leave Carolina as more engaged citizens, as deeper and more creative thinkers and as far more effective leaders. And leave here as practitioners of an intellectual life.”

The public university is a crucible of inclusive democracy. Carolina brings together students, faculty, staff and alumni who come to Chapel Hill with divergent views and beliefs.

“Often, for the first time in their lives, (students) assemble a system of ethical judgment that is genuinely their own,” Leloudis said.

Videoconferencing in virtual classrooms and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) deliver instruction to populations all over the world, for people who may never have had the opportunity to be exposed to Carolina, or to one another.

Leloudis said Graham spelled out the value of the public university in 1939, saying the nation’s strongest defense in the long run was not a huge army, but more equal educational opportunity for all. American democracy would be truly tested in its handling of glaring inequalities.

That same idea rings true on Carolina’s campus decades later, Leloudis said.

“People will come on campus, and they will say, ‘I feel this thing here, and I don’t know what it is,’” he said.

“It is that longstanding commitment to engagement, of connecting the work we do in the library, in the art studio, in the laboratory and in the classroom to the things that matter out there.”

Watch the full video of Leloudis’ lecture.