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MAY 2007


It is no coincidence that Carolina holds its spring commencement on Mother's Day. Seeing their children turn the tassels on their mortarboards to symbolize their graduation from the university must be one of the most precious gifts the mothers in attendance will ever receive.

How do you place a dollar value on something that priceless?

You can, when you think of how commencement affects the local economy each spring. All those proud mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, spouses and friends, grandparents and godparents, aunts and uncles want to celebrate this milestone in a special way. Most are traveling from out of town and need to spend a night or two in a local hotel.

They want to treat their graduate, and Mom, to a meal in a local restaurant. They will not be able to leave town without going to Franklin Street or University Mall to stock up on Tar Heel T-shirts, bumper stickers and other memorabilia. And while they are shopping for Carolina souvenirs, they might as well pick up a nice tie clip at a downtown jewelry store or that special blend of coffee at A Southern Season.

Considering that more than 28,000 people attended commencement at Kenan Stadium on May 13, that is quite a lot of shopping.

The Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau estimated that the influx of visitors for graduation and Mother's Day pumped $2.8 million into the economy of Orange County that weekend. This figure is based on the fact that nearly all 1,200 hotel rooms in the county were booked that weekend.

In addition to room revenues, visitors spent dollars in local restaurants and shops, and Orange County hosted tens of thousands of day-trippers, who spend on average $66 a day while visiting a destination. (This formula comes from an international tourism marketing association.)

It is safe to say that this kind of impact will be repeated, and will most likely grow, in the coming years. Hotels like the Carolina Inn and the Siena Hotel reported that they are already completely booked for commencement weekend 2008. The Franklin Hotel will probably have the same result when it opens reservations for that weekend next month.

It has been a number of years since the university did a scientifically based economic impact study. Intuitively, we know that our impact on Chapel Hill and Orange County is significant. In the near future, we intend to commission a new study so that we can speak with more specificity about Carolina's positive economic impact.

We employ about 11,000 faculty and staff, many of whom live, eat or shop close to campus. Add to that number the 27,500 students enrolled here who are also eating and shopping in the local economy. We are also in the midst of an ambitious capital construction program, currently valued at about $1.8 billion, a portion of which will eventually make its way into the area's stores and restaurants. And you only have to look at how crowded Franklin Street gets during a football weekend or on a basketball game day to realize the impact Carolina's sporting events have on the income of local merchants.

But in the end, you cannot place a simple dollar figure on the university's impact on its neighborhood, anymore than you can put a dollar figure on the joy in a mother's heart to see her son or daughter receive that priceless diploma. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the class of 2007 in her inspiring commencement address, "A degree is a precious thing."

Likewise, one cannot put a dollar figure on the value of what our graduates contribute back to society when they each, in Dr. Albright's words, become "more than a consumer of liberty, but also a defender and an enricher of it" as "doers not drifters."

When legendary Tar Heel basketball coach Dean Smith received his honorary degree and a lengthy standing ovation, he didn't say a word, but merely pointed to the students in the stands, the way Tar Heel players point to a teammate to credit an assist.

Commencement Day is an example of that kind of teamwork, too -- the cooperation between the university and the place that it is proud to call home. And 2007 was no exception, with even the weather cooperating. The sun broke through the clouds as the recessional was ending, and the sky above turned that beautiful color we all call Carolina blue.



James Moeser is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He welcomes readers’ messages at

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