As we enter the final week of the spring semester, another class of seniors is beginning to wistfully reflect on UNC. As pictures of the Old Well, Bell Tower and South Building fill campus social media feed they feed a certain kind of UNC mythology, UNC as an avatar for public higher education.
This mythology of UNC starts with its 18th-century founding as the first public University in the United States, and a significant part of what makes UNC special is tied to the ongoing history of public education. In truth, however, the UNC that existed when Carolina graduated its first class of alumni in 1798 fulfilled few of the idealized functions of modern public universities.
It was funded by the state, but it was primarily a finishing school for a specific class of local elite. Through the Civil War students attending Carolina were being prepared to maintain the gross inequalities of the antebellum South. Through the middle of the twentieth century, over a 150 years into UNC’s existence, the majority of people living in North Carolina were not even eligible to be admitted to UNC because of their race or gender.
Over UNC’s history, the Carolina community has become a more diverse, egalitarian, and civically vibrant space. Because of the work of reformers and leaders the title of public university has gained greater meaning and relevance starting in the early 1900s continuing through to today. The population of UNC more truly represents the actual public of North Carolina and programs like from progressive era county clubs to the contemporary College Advising Corp exist to translate the academic work of UNC into benefits for all kinds of North Carolina communities. UNC has even led the nation in making college affordable for all prospective students with their commitment to the Carolina Covenant.
Yet these successes are not engraved in stone. Even as UNC has become more truly a public university, it has also failed to fully reject the failures of its past. Administrators continue to fail to grapple with the foundational evil of white supremacy at UNC and its full range of physical and structural manifestations.