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A message from the Chancellor: the importance of bridging divides

In an email to campus, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said Carolina is purpose-built for bridging the divides in our society.

Old Well with fall leaves in the background

Dear Carolina Community:

Last night, I joined a crowd of students and faculty for the second Abbey Lecture of the year, a discussion of the rural-urban divide in American life and what we can do to narrow it. We hear a lot about divides in our society. Differences of class and race and geography, partisan rifts and generational disagreements. The categories of division can seem endless and daunting.

But what struck me last night is that our University is purpose-built for bridging those divides. We are one of the few institutions in American society with the incentives, the mandate, and the moral calling to put people in real conversation with one another, to ensure that our disagreements never get so large or so intolerable that we can’t sit down in the same room and try to repair them.

The first audience question came from a student from a rural community. He asked what “those of us with a foot in both worlds” can do to make a difference, how the “Carhartts-in-college” crowd, as he put it, can bridge divides. The panelists told him to embrace the role of translator, helping people in Chapel Hill understand the context back home and people back home understand the worldview from Chapel Hill. They talked about the importance of face-to-face relationships in batting back stereotypes, and how conversations outside of your comfort zone are vital in a big and diverse country.

I agree. It’s why “Promote Democracy” is one pillar of our strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good. It’s one of the reasons we welcome students from every part of North Carolina and every region of the world. It’s why our faculty and our graduates do good work in every corner of this state, whether it’s a rural county or an urban center. It’s why we read books by communists and capitalists, hear lectures from Republicans and Democrats and none of the above, debate ideas from the moderate middle and the immoderate fringe with equal rigor and skepticism.

Serving all North Carolinians means approaching our work with an open mind and an open heart. Our Carolina Across 100 initiative, led by the School of Government and Anita Brown-Graham, aims to put UNC research to work in every county of the state. After two months of research and work with scores of students and campus partners, survey results from leaders in counties across the state have identified employment instability as the focus for our first Carolina Across 100 project. We will embrace this important work and the opportunity to serve the state.

At last week’s meeting of the Association of American Universities, we talked a lot about what universities owe democracy. Ronald Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins University, just wrote a book on that question, calling for universities to be places of “purposeful pluralism.” “As places defined by discourse and shared discovery, we should be at the front lines of the experiment to promote contact and dialogue across difference,” he argues.

No place is doing that perfectly, but I think Carolina is working harder than most. The Program in Public Discourse, which hosted last night’s discussion, is one example. The IDEAS in Action curriculum, with its focus on civic values, is another. The earnest activism of our students and faculty honors our commitment to democracy, as well. Being a bridging institution is often uncomfortable and always difficult, but that’s what we owe democracy.


Kevin M. Guskiewicz