Around Campus

What does it mean to be a public university?

The final Carolina Conversations of the academic year focused on the role of public universities.

Michael Smith speaking.
Carolina Conversations with the topic “What does it Mean to be a Public University?” with Michael Smith, dean of the School of Government, and Frayda Bluestein, David M. Lawrence Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

What does it mean to be a public university?

The answer to that question, it seems, may depend not only on who you ask, but which public university you are asking about, said School of Government Dean Mike Smith.

Carolina, perhaps more than any other university in the country, has embraced its charge as a “public” through its commitment to making education accessible and affordable to the people of the state and producing the state’s leaders, Smith said.

Smith, along with Frayda Bluestein, David M. Lawrence Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government, led a discussion focused on the question about public universities on April 17 at the last of the Carolina Conversations of the academic year.

Bluestein, who is also a faculty member in the School of Government, asked the audience to think about the question of what it means to be a public university at a personal level as well.

“What does it mean to you that Carolina is a public university,” Bluestein asked. “What aspect of your experience here or your role here is affected by that fact? Or put another way, in Mike’s words, ‘What difference does it make that you are at Carolina instead of Duke?’”

“Besides basketball,” Smith added.

As the country’s first public university, the obligations tied to what it means for Carolina to be a public university has continued to evolve — and expand — throughout the two centuries of its existence, Smith said.

“This University was chartered in 1789 which happens to be the same year the federal constitution was ratified,” Smith said. “I don’t think that was a coincidence. I think the idea behind creating a public university in North Carolina was really this basic, fundamental idea that educated citizens are crucial if you are going to have a full-fledged, meaningful democracy.”

Carolina’s deeply held commitment to educating the people of the state is not only embedded in its mission, but spelled out in state law, Smith said.

Legislation creating the University in 1789 stated “it is the indispensable duty of every Legislature to consult the happiness of a rising generation and endeavor to fit them for an honourable discharge of the social duties of life, by paying the strictest attention to their education.”

North Carolina General Statute 116-1 further states that the University of North Carolina will be “dedicated to the service of North Carolina and its people.”

State statute also established that “the benefits of the University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.”

Edward Kidder Graham expanded the notion of what it meant for Carolina to be a public university at his inauguration as University president in 1914 when he vowed to “make the campus co-extensive with the boundaries of the state,” Smith said.

What Graham was asking, Smith said, was for the University to identify the social ills of the state, then apply the scholarship it created to help solve them.

Service to the state has been the hallmark of the School of Government since its inception, Smith said. It began in 1931 as the Institute of Government in 1931 as a training, consulting and research organization.

“This University has made an incredible commitment, and I am grateful, to the work we do in North Carolina,” Smith said. “That commitment tends to be broader and deeper than it is in other states, and the relationship that we have with public officials is absolutely unique.”