He enlisted in the Army and served in the US Army Counterintelligence Corps and was stationed at the Pentagon for two years — a post which meant he could remain with his new wife. After his service, he practiced law in Birmingham, Alabama for a time. But when Duke asked him to fill in for a professor for a year, he couldn’t say no.
“He was just a role model,” said Lanty Smith, who took Hardin’s class on torts before serving with him on Duke’s Board of Trustees years later. “He was a very fine teacher, but he also represented what lawyers should be. He had outstanding integrity — that was clear from the first time we were in the classroom with him.”
One year turned into ten before Hardin eventually left Duke to become the president of Wofford College, a small, Methodist men’s college in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The year was 1968 and Hardin was 37 years old. It was here that he would develop his administrative style and find his way as an academic leader.
“I think there was only one of us that was 40 years old in the administration, and nobody wanted the jobs,” said Joe Lesesne, a member of Hardin’s administration who would succeed him as president of the college. “It was not a pleasant place in a lot of people's minds to be.”
It was not a pleasant place because of the unrest in American academia at large. In the four years that Hardin served as president at Wofford, he dealt with the end of the Civil Rights era and the beginning of protests concerning the Vietnam War, feminism, environmentalism and the death of in loco parentis.
Hardin was a president in crisis. But he took the issues of the day and turned them into an administration that Lesesne referred to as “pivotal.” During his tenure, Wofford began admitting female day students, hired its first African-American administrator, codified an open speaker policy on campus, included HBCUs in its athletic schedule and rewrote the student code of conduct, which remains in place to this day.
He was also affecting change elsewhere — Hardin had maintained an active presence in the Methodist Church throughout his adult life. In addition to being the son of Bishop Paul Hardin, he served as a representative to the state-wide Annual Conference every year and was elected as a delegate to the global General Conference in 1968, which integrated black and white congregations in the United Methodist Church and allowed women to serve as full clergy members.
Hardin’s relative youth in these movements was an asset at Wofford. Barbara, Paul “Russ,” Sandra and Dorothy Hardin are well-remembered as fixtures of collegiate life at Wofford and beyond. Many members of Hardin’s administration had children around the same age as his own, leading the kids and their parents to form a familial bond. Until three years ago, the members of that staff took an annual vacation together.
“Some of the people said after he left, 'Well, that was Camelot, you know? That was Camelot,’” Lesesne said, referencing King Arthur’s fabled utopian court. “It was a happy time through a difficult time.”
Hardin left Wofford in 1972 to become president of Southern Methodist University. There, he encountered perhaps his most famous challenge.
He was two years into his time at SMU when he received a call from a football player’s father, saying that his son was bringing home cash prizes that were awarded to the players based on their performance in games. Hardin quickly removed the football coach as athletic director and shortened his contract, bringing the attention of the NCAA. Five months later, Hardin was forced out of his job. But thirteen years later, SMU received the NCAA’s only “death penalty” to date, eliminating the 1987 season.
“What he did at SMU was just remarkable in being a tall oak in a very bad forest,” Smith said.
But while his whistleblowing at SMU had immediate repercussions, it would help lift his career in later years. He moved on to Drew University — another Methodist school, but one that was in New Jersey and didn’t have a football team. He served as president there from 1975 to 1988.
While at Drew, he was approached to take the chancellorship at UNC. As a two-time Duke graduate, Hardin thought he had no shot at the job — plus, he wasn’t looking. But the search committee was convinced that he would be UNC’s next chancellor, largely due to his handling of the SMU football situation. Hardin returned to his home state, ready to lead his former rival campus.
Hardin’s tenure over UNC, from his installment in 1988 to his retirement in 1995, was largely dominated by the Bicentennial Observance, a yearlong celebration that ended with a ceremony in Kenan Stadium and the conferral of an honorary degree to former President Bill Clinton.
“In his bicentennial address, alumnus Charles Kuralt spoke of how Carolina was meant to be ‘the University of the people,’” UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said in a statement. “Paul seized upon Carolina’s 200th birthday as an opportunity to light the way to a better future and open Carolina’s doors for all North Carolinians.”
The Bicentennial Observance also served as a trailblazing effort for fundraising at UNC. The five-year Bicentennial Campaign for Carolina aimed to raise $320 million for the University, but ultimately raised $440 million in private gifts.
“I think he ushered in the modern era of fundraising with the Bicentennial Campaign,” said former UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp. “Everything that gets done with Carolina First and with the campaign that's going on now was building on the legacy that he started with the Bicentennial Campaign.”
Hardin also weathered controversy as chancellor. His arguments with student activists on the location and nature of what would eventually become the Sonja Hayes Stone Center for Black Culture and History sparked the largest protests seen on campus since the Vietnam War. While his 1992 comments against having an independent black cultural center grabbed national attention, the planning committee he put in place for the center did eventually acquiesce to having a freestanding building that was run from the provost’s office.
But Hardin’s tenure also saw victories like the establishment of the Employee Forum, which gives non-academic University workers a voice in UNC’s governance and a seat on the Board of Trustees.
After Hardin’s retirement in 1995, he stayed involved in the Triangle, immediately joining Duke’s Board of Trustees and the UNC School of Law faculty.
“Paul Hardin was an integral part of the University’s history and through his work as chancellor was an advocate for the law school,” said UNC School of Law Dean Martin Brinkley in a statement. “We were deeply privileged to have him as a member of our law school faculty after his retirement from the chancellorship.”
He also provided a moral compass for future leadership. It may seem ironic now that Hardin was instated as UNC’s chancellor due to a skillful handling of an athletic scandal, but for Thorp — who first met Hardin as an assistant professor — it was a lifeline in the midst of UNC’s own troubles.
“I had somebody to talk to who knew what I was going through,” Thorp said. “And that was hugely important. I think what he did at SMU really is the playbook by which we should all try to do these things. It's a lot harder now, in some ways. But Paul sets the standard.”
But more than a compass for the University, he was a guiding light for his family and friends. In a remembrance at the memorial, Hardin’s son Paul “Russ” Hardin said that his father used the gym at his retirement home until a month before his death. He said that even when his father was wheelchair bound, he made his family go with him to the grave that he would be buried in at the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, smiling as he looked around at his future “neighbors.”
“Lou Gehrig wasn’t the luckiest man in the world,” said Russ Hardin, referencing the speech that the baseball player made after his ALS diagnosis. “Paul Hardin wasn’t even the luckiest man in the world. Today, I consider myself the luckiest man in the world, because my father was Paul Hardin.”