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UNC seeks balance in dual roles

UNC-Chapel Hill, as the state's flagship public university, takes its role seriously.

It strives to be the best within North Carolina's public university system, and it aims high at the national and international levels.

The University ranked 29th out of all national colleges and universities in U.S. News & World Report's list of the country's top institutions.

"Being the first university, it means that we're often looked to as the pinnacle of public education in North Carolina," said Matt Calabria, student body president.

Chartered by the N.C. General Assembly in 1789, the nation's first public university opened in 1795 with the goal of educating the residents of North Carolina.

Since then, the "University of the People" has grown into more than a few buildings down the road from the small Anglican chapel that gave the town its name.

And perhaps as a result of that growth, many question the future of UNC-CH's role in the UNC system.

"I think Chancellor (James) Moeser understands in a profound way the role of a public institution in doing public good," said Hannah Gage, a member of the system's Board of Governors and a UNC-CH graduate.

In fall 2003 the University admitted 16,144 undergraduates, a 1.15 percent increase from the previous year. The school grew once more this fall, increasing its enrollment by 2.36 percent to 16,525 students.

Leader of the pack

Some -- mostly legislators and UNC-system officials -- see the University as a guidepost for the rest of the system's schools and the state.

But UNC-CH's status at the top of the heap has provoked some school administrators to lobby for individual consideration.

Chancellor James Moeser, as recently as during the BOG's February meeting, has said that UNC-CH's special needs must be met if the University is to maintain its quality education and compete on a national level.

"UNC-Chapel Hill is in a unique position because we're in a completely different peer group (than other UNC-system schools)," Calabria said.

To maintain this standard, the University's Board of Trustees backed Moeser and voted in January for a tuition increase of $200 for residents and $950 for nonresidents for the coming year.

Moeser also spearheaded a systemwide effort last academic year to raise the out-of-state enrollment cap from 18 percent to 22 percent, a move that he said would enhance the campus's intellectual climate.

The BOG, after serious debate, decided that the system wasn't ready for such a change. Opponents argued that the raise would decrease system schools' abilities to serve the residents of North Carolina.

Surging ahead

The question of whether UNC-CH is being held back by the 15 other campuses is one that both administrators and student officials are reluctant to address overtly.

But tension is evident within the system as colleges and universities across the state set their priorities.

Calabria said there is a legitimate case to be made for special treatment of the system's flagship university.

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"The relationship with Chapel Hill and the UNC system is in a lot of ways like the relationship between the United States and United Nations," he said. "You'd rather go your own way on various issues."

He said there's often healthy disagreement between the University and the system because of that.

"I think the beauty of the UNC system is the ongoing tension that exists between the campuses as they compete individually and encourage each others' successes," Gage said.

In October 2003 the University again outpaced higher education institutions by establishing the Carolina Covenant -- which ensures a full ride for low-income students in exchange for 10 to 12 hours per week in a federal work-study program.

Soon after, University of Virginia officials began a financial analysis of what it cost take them to establish such a program.

Several other states' universities also contacted UNC-CH for a rundown on the program.

A public service

But there are places where UNC-CH isn't quite ready to venture.

Though several public schools in Virginia are working with the Va. General Assembly to gain more autonomy, UNC-CH officials say the University will not be leaving its mission behind any time soon.

Under legislation passed by the state's General Assembly this month, Virginia's public universities would have to meet 11 criteria set by the legislature to gain autonomy.

The legislature's stipulations include a commitment to providing equal access to affordable education as well as the development of six-year revenue projections.

Though schools within the UNC system have felt the strain of funding crunches in recent years, UNC-CH administrators have expressed a desire to remain a public university.

And keeping things affordable is key to providing a top-notch education to all North Carolinians.

"I've never heard of anyone who didn't love it," Gage said.

Though UNC-CH has one of the nation's best basketball programs and is about to expand through its planned satellite campus Carolina North, it's the intangibles that often draw people to "Blue Heaven."

"Carolina offers a lot of things that don't translate into U.S. News rankings," Calabria said. "That's difficult to explain, but it's profoundly true."

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