Out of the ivory tower: The Tar Heel Bus Tour returns after 11 years
Daily Tar Heel senior writer Preston Lennon traveled alongside the bus tour and met the faculty at various stops of the three routes. The Daily Tar Heel was not permitted to travel inside the bus.
On a rainy Wednesday morning in Chapel Hill, 90 professors and administrators gathered at the Friday Center, where three UNC-branded buses were idling in the parking lot, waiting to embark across the state to the west, east and southeast.
Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz toured the room in a blue vest and khakis, shaking hands and starting conversations. There hasn't been a Tar Heel Bus Tour in over 10 years, but after two months on the job Guskiewicz announced it was coming back.
“$520 million of our annual base funding comes from the state of North Carolina,” Guskiewicz said. “I want them to know they’re getting a good return on that investment.”
The bus tour began under former Chancellor Michael Hooker in 1997. He died in office in 1999, but the tour continued until 2008, right around the recession. Guskiewicz said as he and his team were planning the revival, Hooker was a source of inspiration.
“Michael Hooker and I started on the same day: July 1, 1995. He was my first chancellor,” he said. “He had a big impact on this campus and on me personally. And so I think it was a bit of that, bringing back a little bit of Michael.”
The three buses each carried 30 faculty, who had all applied to attend the trip. They visited places like the executive mansion in Raleigh and the Bank of America Financial Center in Charlotte, but also schools and community centers in rural parts of the state, coastal stops like the Green Swamp Preserve, and Cherokee, where they heard a presentation about the economic impact of the local casino.
Tori Ekstrand in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media said she was going on the tour “so that people in the community understand what we do or what we try to do, and that we’re not the scary portrayals of the elitist academy."
She said the tour also allowed faculty to bond with one another in ways that would otherwise be difficult because of how easy it is for faculty to feel isolated at major institutions like UNC.
And because so much of UNC’s work is intertwined with the state of North Carolina, she said, it’s important for faculty to be hands-on in communities that might otherwise not see much attention.
“Our sister institutions are probably more in touch with those communities on a regular basis than we are,” she said. “I think more of us and some other parts of the institution could be playing more of a role in communities throughout North Carolina.”
The roads between Chapel Hill and Rocky Mount are lined with cotton fields. Faculty opened their umbrellas as they got off the bus to learn about different issues facing the town and initiatives community leaders have undertaken to enhance education and health care within Rocky Mount.
“Rocky Mount has historically been identified very closely with the struggles of post-Civil War issues,” city councilman and UNC graduate Reuben Blackwell said. “The struggle of race and equity, the struggle of education and adequately funding educational systems and the struggle of health disparities that continue to exist because of the legacy of our racial economics.”
While at UNC, Blackwell was a member of the Black Student Movement and was mentored by Sonja Haynes Stone. He said the education system in Rocky Mount is embattled because the town exists within two different counties, and butting heads between the separate government structures have led to the poor condition of many inner-city schools going intentionally unaddressed.
“My expectation of my University is that we should engage, embrace and lead conversations regarding race and equity and not shy away from hard subjects, and not be afraid of controversy,” Blackwell said. “I expect my institution to care more about our future than we are about any political liability that we might suffer by speaking the truth and creating momentum, creating an equitable, just and sustainable North Carolina.”
Those traveling on the East bus then ate a barbecue lunch at a local church, where faculty member Giselle Corbie-Smith talked about Project GRACE, a research project she’s involved in that works to eliminate health disparities in Black communities.
When everyone was gathered at their tables, Corbie-Smith invited the crowd to join Project GRACE in a prayer. She acknowledged that there might not be much religious expression among the faculty in the room, but said differences aside, praying is “what we do here.”
During lunch, one of the official UNC photographers accompanying the tour asked his partner to grab the drone from the car. The weather had started to clear, and they could now start working on some overhead shots of the bus in transit.
Later that afternoon, the East bus parked at Pitt Community College to learn about how the school is adapting to changing job markets and playing a role in its community. While faculty were listening to a jazz combo in the lobby. Guskiewicz pulled up outside in the official car of the UNC chancellor, a silver Acura MDX.
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After sitting in on a presentation, he did an interview with local news station WITN in the halls of the community college, then headed back to his car, which was being driven by a communications manager from the Chancellor’s Office. He spent time on all three routes throughout the trip, and then hosted a Friday night dinner at Quail Hill, the chancellor's residence, where faculty could reflect on the experience.
“It’s great to get out,” Guskiewicz said while walking to the car. “I love Chapel Hill, but it’s good to get out and see the impact beyond those low stone walls that define our campus.”
In Clinton, a crowd of local officials waited to greet the incoming bus at the City Market. Board of Trustees member Allie Ray McCullen was hosting an event for the faculty to learn about 21st century farming concerns.
“They need to learn the diversity of North Carolina,” McCullen said. "They need to learn how important agriculture is not only to this county, but to this state and to this country."
Although faculty were expecting to tour the inside of an actual farm, McCullen said he had arranged for a livestock farmer to guide them through the back roads and explain what was being grown in Sampson County.
Sampson County is the most agriculturally diverse county in N.C., boasting $1.12 billion in total cash receipts of agriculture products.
“What many people think, who were not raised on a farm, they were looking to Old McDonald's farm, with free range chickens and a pig,” McCullen said. “Doesn't exist. We’re high tech now.” He laughed out loud.
Faculty ate Smithfield’s Chicken 'n Bar-B-Q at the City Market while McCullen and others talked more about the globalization of agriculture. McCullen lives on his family farm in Keener and works as an appraiser in addition to his position on the Board of Trustees.
“Unfortunately, and this is no disrespect to any one person, but too many people involved with the University think that there is no world beyond Chapel Hill,” he said. “But there is, a big world and an important world.”
Later that day the Southeast bus toured the Green Swamp Preserve, a native home for Venus flytraps and pitcher plants. Walking through the woods, one faculty member mentioned he noticed some tension during the question and answer portion of the guided tour back in Sampson County.
“I was kind of shocked a little bit when they were talking, asking questions,” McCullen said. “I grew up on a farm so I assumed everybody knew it. But we need to do some education there.”
Interim Chancellor Guskiewicz met the West bus at its final stop of the tour, UNC Rockingham Health Care in Eden.
Medical officials talked about the University’s rural health initiatives like the Kenan Rural Scholars Program, which trains students for a career as primary care physicians in rural areas. North Carolina has the second largest rural population in the U.S. after Texas.
According to the medical officials that presented, research suggests that if medical students complete their residencies and training in rural communities, they’re more likely to remain there after becoming doctors.
After the event, when asked if the bus tour had been a refreshing escape from Chapel Hill and N.C. politics, Guskiewicz responded that politics are what allows UNC to function as it does. He said he thought the presence of legislators at some of the stops along the way would pay dividends for UNC once the tour was over.
“The politics are part of our business,” he said. “We rely on our General Assembly to support us so we can carry on this important work.”
Outside the hospital, faculty conversed and prepared for the last leg of the trip home. James Leloudis, a professor in the history department, said the trip reminded him of UNC’s role in North Carolina.
“There’s lots of public universities in the country and they're proud to be public, but I think that word has a kind of depth of meaning and intensity for Carolina that’s not shared by all those other institutions that have the word public in their title,” he said.
Ekstrand, the journalism professor, said the curiosity shown by faculty on the trip was a highlight of her time at UNC, and that she hopes other opportunities like it will come again in the future.
“I’m reminded how the technology distances us. It distances us in our private lives and it distances us in our professional lives,” she said. “And we rely on it to be connected, but there’s nothing more powerful or authentic than being stuck with people on the bus for several hours just to be able to talk about things that would otherwise not come up.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the amount of annual funding UNC receives from the state of North Carolina in a quote by interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.