History and Traditions

History of the University

The University of North Carolina was the first public university in the nation. In 1789, William Richardson Davie wrote the act that established the University. In 1793, he and fellow trustees laid the cornerstone of the first building, Old East. Students arrived in 1795, and UNC became the only public university to award degrees in the 18th century.

Graduate programs began in 1876, followed by a summer school for teachers in 1877, medical and pharmaceutical programs in 1879, and a school of law in 1897. In 1915, leaders broadened the mission of the University to include research and public service. Professional schools were established as follows:

  • School of Education (1915)
  • School of Commerce, now Kenan-Flagler Business School (1919)
  • School of Public Welfare, now the School of Social Work (1920)
  • School of Library Science, now the School of Information and Library Science (1931)
  • Institute of Government, now the School of Government (1931)
  • School of Public Health, now the Gillings School of Global Public Health (1936)
  • Division of Health Affairs (1949)
  • School of Dentistry (1949)
  • School of Journalism, now the School of Media and Journalism (1950)
  • School of Nursing (1950)

In 1922, the Association of American Universities (AAU) admitted UNC as a member, an acknowledgement of its growth in research and graduate programs.

In 1931, the North Carolina General Assembly established a Consolidated University comprised of the Chapel Hill campus, Woman’s College at Greensboro and North Carolina State College at Raleigh. In 1972, it created the UNC system, joining 16 state colleges and universities under a president and board of governors.

Learn more about Carolina’s history at:

The Carolina Story and History on the Hill.

What’s a Tar Heel

A black female student holding a Tar Heel-shaped foam finger cheers on the U.N.C. football team.

One of the top questions about Carolina and its history is: What’s a Tar Heel? Learn how the nickname originated in North Carolina and became associated with the University’s varsity athletics teams.

Other questions and information about the University that center on its many historic sites and landmarks include:

Carolina Traditions

Many legends and good luck omens have become popular lore at Carolina. Two of the most famous ones revolve around a poplar tree and a well. Read more on the Virtual Museum site.

University Day

University Day is an occasion to remember the University’s past and celebrate its future. The date, October 12, marks the laying of the cornerstone of Old East, the institution’s first building and the oldest state university building in the nation. Read more at the University Day site.

Bell Tower Climb

The UNC General Alumni Association invites folks to climb the Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower several times each year, including prior to home football gamesand during Senior Weekeach spring.