At the celebration of Carolina’s 225th birthday, Chancellor Carol L. Folt acknowledged the University’s complicated past as the nation’s first public university and called for purposeful action as it moves forward.
In her welcome remarks, Folt apologized for the University’s participation in the practice of slavery. The University was built and sustained by slaves in its earliest days, and Folt is the first Carolina Chancellor to issue an apology.
“As chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I offer our University’s deepest apology for the profound injustices of slavery, our full acknowledgment of the strength of enslaved peoples in the face of their suffering, and our respect and indebtedness to them. I reaffirm our University’s commitment to facing squarely and working to right the wrongs of history so they are never again inflicted,” Folt said.
She noted that 11 years ago, the N.C. General Assembly passed legislation apologizing for the practice of slavery and that lawmakers explicitly urged universities “to do all within their power to acknowledge the transgressions, to learn the lessons of history, avoid repeating mistakes and to promote racial reconciliation.”
Folt said that Carolina is the only public university that has experienced U.S. history from the start.
“Our unique legacy demands that we continue to reconcile our past with our present and future and be the diverse and just community that is fitting for America’s first public university,” Folt said. “Our apology must lead to purposeful action and it has to build upon the great efforts and sacrifices of so many across the years who fought so hard for much of what we value about Carolina today.”
Folt presided over the Oct. 12 University Day ceremony at Memorial Hall, which marks the laying of the cornerstone of Old East, the nation’s first public university building, in 1793. Folt, celebrating her fifth year as chancellor, also served as one of the keynote speakers, along with history professor and alumnus James Leloudis and alumna Felicia Washington, Carolina’s vice chancellor for workforce strategy, equity and engagement.
In his remarks as a co-chair of the Chancellor’s Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill History, Leloudis detailed the University’s newest efforts to install signs and educational markers in McCorkle Place, the historic heart of campus and the site of Carolina’s first buildings. Those plans, Leloudis said, include:
- Signs and thresholds markers at the quad entrances that will mark the birthplace of American public higher education and acknowledge the indigenous people who “were the first stewards of this land, and whose descendants work, study and teach here today.”
- A marker near the Unsung Founders Memorial that “will express the University’s deep contrition for its role in the injustices of slavery and invite visitors to join us in researching and recovering the full humanity of the enslaved men and women who built so much of the early University and sustained it.”
- Repair and renovation of the Unsung Founders Memorial site that “will create a more respectful, contemplative space of the sort that the Class of 2002 imagined when they presented the sculpture as their class gift.”
Leloudis said once there is a plan for the Confederate Monument’s location, extensive research already conducted will help “inform an exhibit and other educational materials to teach the history of the monument and the era of white supremacy in which it was erected.”
In her remarks, Washington detailed how Carolina helped her begin her journey toward accomplishing her dreams of going to law school and then becoming a partner at a law firm, a member of the Board of Trustees and a vice chancellor.
“My story is not unique. My story is that of thousands before me and thousands yet to come,” Washington said. “This is Carolina: the place of continuing, virtually unlimited opportunity for students.”
Folt followed Washington’s speech with predictions for the future, noting that the accelerating pace of change, innovation and adaptation will become commonplace as Carolina redefines how the modern university operates.
Carolina’s students will continue to diversify and “we’re going to meet them more where they are actively doing things,” Folt said. “They will integrate their learning with their off-campus experiences and research. Many of them will study off campus. Some may spend their entire career outside of Carolina and we are still and always going to be preparing them to be ready to be the ones who adapt and extend their skill set so that they can be creating the jobs and the ideas of tomorrow.”
Faculty from all fields at Carolina, Folt said, will be better supported “to take their work out into the world however they see that can take place, to take risks and to collaborate in solution-oriented teams that will span the globe.”
Many jobs of today will phase out, she said, and Carolina will help the state retrain its workforce to develop the skills needed for the future.
“No matter what the future brings, I am confident that Carolina will both ride and guide those changes,” Folt said.