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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.  The General Alumni Association sponsored the lecture.

“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.

A compass for charting our future

“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.”

Read more from the University Gazette.

Published October 11, 2013.