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How Anne Cates became UNC's first and only female Board of Trustees chairperson

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Anne Cates, the first female BOT chairperson in nearly 200 years. Photo by Aaron Moger, Courtesy UNC-Chapel Hill.

When Anne Cates first visited Chapel Hill in the spring of her senior year of high school, she immediately knew how much she would love the town and the University she hoped to attend.

“I thought it was the most gorgeous place I had ever seen in my life,” Cates said. “You fall in love with it.” 

Like many other female students at the time, Cates attended an all-girls school before coming to UNC as a junior. Although Cates had interest in being a business major, she shared no complaints about being enrolled in UNC’s School of Education — which she said was the only professional school to accept women at the time. 

“I remember coming down the first day thinking, ‘What in the world? All these boys!’” Cates said. 

What she didn’t know as a 1953 graduate, however, was she would hold several “first female” titles in many of the most renowned leadership positions at the University, including the first and only female chairperson of the Board of Trustees.

A humble volunteer 

After graduation, Cates worked in real estate and dedicated much of her time to raising her children. As her children grew, Cates knew she wanted to use her time to come back to UNC and serve her school in whatever way possible. 

“I would tell them, ‘If you ever need me to sweep the floor, go to the airport to pick someone up, anything, I’ve got the time,'” Cates said. 

Cate’s extensive work with the University came from her passion to support it in any way possible. 

“My love was education because I believed in it,” Cates said. 

General Alumni Association 

Cates later joined the General Alumni Association and eventually became one of the few women to hold the title of president during her 1995-96 term. Cates played an influential role in the creation and design of the George Watts Hill Alumni Center, one of the most visited buildings on campus by prospective students, guest speakers and prominent University leaders. 

Cates' immense dedication to the beautification of the Center was almost comical — she was known for “do it yourself” mentality about cleaning the building. 

Richard Stevens, a former chairperson of the Board of Trustees, said on one of the Center’s first opening celebrations, Cates wasn’t fully satisfied with the way the bathrooms had been cleaned and took it into her own hands to make sure the Center was perfect for visitation. 

“She went home, changed into work clothes, came back, cleaned the restroom, put on her nice clothes and came back to the luncheon,” Stevens said. “Workers said, ‘Whoops, Cates is cleaning the restrooms. We have to make sure they’re clean from now on.’” 

Cates also acted as a founder and first chairperson of the Alumni Center’s first social club, the Carolina Club. 

Doing the job 

Cates added on to her lists of firsts later after joining the board of directors for Educational Foundation Inc., also known as the Rams Club. Cates acted as treasurer and first female president of the Rams Club during her over-a-decade-long tenure. 

Cates said that her role as head of the Rams Club came about during the first discussions and enactment of Title IX. Cates said that some of her male peers expressed doubt, saying that they were unsure how her leadership would fare. Cates took the job by the reins, naturally. 

“I just thought it was just another job,” Cates said. 

A first and only 

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Cates was recognized for her service to both the GAA and Rams Club, as well as her contributions to Carolina’s bicentennial campaign, which raised over $440 million for university academics, before joining the Board of Trustees in 1993. Cates was named chairperson in 1999, making her the first woman to lead the BOT in its history of over 200 years. 

“She had given tremendous service to the University," Stevens said. "She was the most qualified person for the job."

Stevens said Cates was a “natural” in her role as chairperson, despite the several challenges she faced from the start of her tenure. Following the death of Chancellor Michael Hooker while in office, arguably one of the most difficult challenges any university leader must face, Cates proactively created a committee to find a new chancellor.

Stevens referred to Cates as the “Mother of the University,” due to her commitment to the university before, during and even long after her time as BOT chairperson. Cates said she never saw her gender as a hindrance for getting the job done. 

“I care about what’s happening on campus now just as much as I did then,” Cates said.

Words of encouragement

Cates said she’s happy to see so many female leaders on campus and in University politics, referencing the past two Student Body President elections won by Savannah Putnam and Ashton Martin. 

Although she still stands as the only woman to ever lead the BOT, Cates says she’s not worried about it, leaving one piece of advice. 

“I don't think any women should be intimidated," Cates said. "If you have a job to do, just do it."