D.G. MARTIN: An Important Day -- and Words -- in Chapel Hill
What words of wisdom and inspiration will we hear in Chapel Hill today?
On Oct. 12 each year, the community gathers to celebrate University Day, the anniversary of the founding of the University of North Carolina. More precisely, it marks the day in 1793 when the cornerstone was laid for the first campus building, Old East.
Why celebrate that day rather than an earlier day in 1789 when the state legislature granted the university its charter? If the charter day is recognized as the official beginning date, then the University of North Carolina loses its claim to be the oldest state university. The University of Georgia was chartered in 1785.
But UNC began its building program much earlier than Georgia or any other state university. It also enrolled its first student and graduated its first class well before Georgia or any other state university.
Traditionally, University Day is an occasion for public reflection and speeches that consider the historical contributions of the university and challenges in the days ahead.
When University Day coincides with the installation of a new chancellor, the new leader's remarks can be doubly important. These spoken words may lay down markers of the perspectives and commitments that will guide the chancellor in the years to come.
Today will mark the installation of a relatively young new chancellor, Holden Thorp (44). Since he has the potential to lead the university for many years, his words and the values embodied in them could be of extraordinary importance to the campus and to the entire state it serves.
In preparation for his remarks, Chancellor Thorp will doubtlessly study the words of his predecessors and other important university leaders. In their times and special circumstances they sought to articulate the core values that would undergird their platform for leading the university.
Coincidentally, a collection of speeches, letters and remarks about the university was just published, thanks to efforts of Daniel Barefoot, who is the editor of "Hark the Sound of Tar Heel Voices: 200 Years of UNC History."
"Hark the Sound" demonstrates that from the earliest times the university's friends and leaders had high aspirations for it. For instance, hear this from Willie Jones, who spoke at the first graduation in 1796: "the rays of knowledge, with virtue attendant, diverging from Chapel Hill, shall likewise illumine not only the state of North Carolina, but the utmost limits of the United States."
At University Day in 1976, President William Friday, explaining why alumni are so loyal, said in his speech, "This University reached out and embraced us. Its great teachers and scholars opened new worlds and guided us in self-realization."
More recently, another young chancellor laid out his vision in his installation remarks. Here is Michael Hooker on University Day in 1995. Speaking of UNC-Chapel Hill, he said, "We should deceive ourselves if we thought such an institution could have its effect only within this state. We are in fact an institution of national and international significance and meaning.Its faculty and its graduates moderate life, not only in North Carolina, but around the globe. Its destiny is to be free, to follow truth, and to shed light."
Thorp can find important guidance from his immediate predecessor, James Moeser, speaking in Washington in 2002: "The only way we'll find answers to the really big issues facing our state, our nation, and our world is to create an environment of unfettered inquiry in which our students learn to think critically, ask tough questions and come to their own conclusions."
Today, perhaps we will hear echoes of some of these words selected from "Hark the Sound." But we will be listening most to what Chancellor Thorp has to add to them.
D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. Tonight's guest is Cindy Ramsey, author of "Boys of the Battleship North Carolina."
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