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June 2009

Celebrating Carolina North

Last week was a momentous week for UNC and the Town of Chapel Hill. On Monday, the Chapel Hill Town Council unanimously approved a new zone and development agreement to allow the university to build the Carolina North campus, an agreement that was ratified later in the week by Carolina's Board of Trustees.

In the lead up to that vote, several members of the Town Council expressed their excitement about the possibilities this new campus will bring to our area, and I share their enthusiasm. But before I say anything about Carolina North itself, I want to applaud the truly collaborative process that brought us to this point.

As longtime residents know, Carolina North is hardly a new idea. The notion of building a separate campus on the Horace Williams tract along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard has been kicked around for nearly two decades now. And out of this long process of give and take, a bold new plan arose that addressed the concerns of our local citizens and incorporated their ideas. The feedback we got from the many public meetings at which Carolina North was discussed made our plans better and better.

But the final breakthrough was the decision by the Town Council and the university to pursue a very innovative process that led up to the council's and trustees' approvals. Instead of approaching each other as adversaries, we came to the table as partners to work out an agreement in the best interest of all concerned.

David Owens, a faculty member in Carolina's School of Government and a consultant to the town, explained the process and pointed out the benefits to both parties. With the agreement, the town receives several long-term commitments from the university, such as to preserve certain ecologically sensitive areas in perpetuity, while the university gains a stable environment for implementing a long-range, integrated development plan.

The town's and the university's decision makers -- Mayor Kevin Foy, Town Council, key members of the UNC Board of Trustees and I -- came together about once a month to reach agreement on several important negotiated issues.

But we could never have made such progress without the tireless work of both town and university staff members, who met weekly to iron out the many details covered in the development agreement, an effort ably led by Town Manager Roger Stancil and Carolina North's Executive Director Jack Evans.

During this unprecedented process, members of both staffs worked together as colleagues in a way that was so refreshing and so successful that I hope it becomes the norm and not the exception for future town-gown interaction.

And what has this nine-month process birthed? Nothing less than the future setting of our historic university, a new campus to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Now it is up to us to generate some world-changing ideas for what will happen at Carolina North, when the funding picture improves. We will be poised to provide a home for our incredibly inventive faculty members to turn their ideas into solutions at the Innovation Center and other public-private partnerships, to give the School of Law and other academic units much needed space to expand and grow, and to supply housing that is convenient and affordable for our faculty, staff and graduate students.

At the same time, Carolina North will be a model of sustainability, a place to apply our environmental research in a real-world scenario, to explore new energy sources and technology, to push the envelope on smart design. This new campus will not only help us to retain our best and brightest, it will also be a magnet to attract quality faculty, staff and students to North Carolina.

So I congratulate the town and its leaders on being bold enough to take a chance on a process new to them that will make it possible to build Carolina North in the integrated way it was envisioned. Their willingness to meet us at the negotiating table has helped us take that critical first step in achieving a vision worthy of a great town and a great university.


Holden Thorp is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Readers can contact him at

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