For many years, a member of the GAA Board of Directors has presented a “My Carolina Story” at each of the board’s quarterly meetings. As our Carolina family seeks ways to stay connected during these challenging times, board members are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.
“That is what makes this a special place — if you look, you can find great professors willing to buy into student creativity.”
Oct. 2, 2010
Good morning. Thank you for that introduction. Carolina is very special to me, so I am honored to share my UNC story. I am a person drawn to history and context, so let me sketch the scene for you in 1979:
- Jimmy Carter was president;
- Michael Jackson released his breakthrough album Off the Wall;
- The Rocky Horror Picture Show was showing at the Varsity Theatre with people getting sprayed with water every weekend;
- Class registration still meant long lines in Woollen Gym;
- Streakers ran through Undergrad Library and the Pit; and
- A new sports bar called Four Corners opened on Franklin Street.
Now why I left my hometown of Greensboro to come to UNC:
My decision had a lot to do with my father. My fourth-grade year, he was a sociology professor at N.C. A&T who took a year leave to teach graduate courses in sociology at UNC. The next summer of 1971, my mother came to UNC to attend an institute for college mathematics professors, and I was put in a local camp. Now in his early 80s, my father still remembers his admiration for Gerhard Lenski and Rupert Vance, who where then giants in sociology. As for me, I went all over campus, and that was it. I was sold.
Within three years of that experience, some great reporting and a couple of lawyers named Sam Ervin and Barbara Jordan captivated me during the Watergate hearings. With its good law and journalism schools, UNC seemed the perfect choice. Like others, I did not apply anywhere else.
Again some context: My parents graduated from college before the first blacks were admitted as undergrads here in 1955. So it is ironic that my first real exposure to UNC came from my father teaching here — an event only four years after the first black professor was hired at UNC — reflecting changes occurring in the world at large and on campus. So in 1979, it was with a sense of gratification that my parents brought me to attend UNC-Chapel Hill.
Some of my favorite memories from UNC:
- Being in a sorority – Alpha Kappa Alpha
- Step shows and parties at Upendo Lounge and in Great Hall
- Waiting for burgers at Hectors after parties at 2 a.m.
- Semi-formal fraternity and sorority dances
- Eating at Papagayos
- Hanging out at the Pit, the Union or on the Wall at Undergrad Library
- Living in Morrison and being an RA in Hinton James
- Hard-fought campus campaigns and elections
- Having influential professors such as Art Benavie (econ), Jim Leutze (history), Trudier Harris (English), Duncan McRae (public policy)
- Also two very caring administrators with seemingly perpetual office hours: Associate Dean Hayden B. Renwick and Fellows Program Dirctor Dr. Majorie Christiansen, known as “Dr. C”
- The guy I dated at UNC was a philosophy major, and he decided to join the Dialetic and Philanthropic Society, better known as Di-Phi — so I also got involved. For those who may not know, Di Phi was UNC’s first student organization and has been around since 1795. It was a “wow” experience.
- I would wind my way up those four flights of New East. Entering the Di-Phi chambers put my life as a student in proper perspective as I stepped into UNC’s storied past. The topics students have debated since UNC’s founding provided me a fascinating look at issues impacting campus, the South and the larger world.
So, I have a lot of good memories of this place.
One memory is about a course: Special Studies 90. It was a short-lived student-designed course that received academic credit in 1982. The real point is not the course itself. It is that UNC allowed students to be creative and execute on a vision. For me, it showed what a special place this was.
By fall of 1980, I was a student rep for Dean Williamson’s committee charged with suggesting changes for General College requirements. So I was spending a lot of time looking at courses offered on campus. I was also very active in Student Government, or SGA.
One day a group of us at SGA concluded that there wasn’t a course to address multicultural issues across different academic disciplines. So our thought process as students — let’s develop a course. The seminar was to be a joint project between SGA and Arts and Sciences. Five UNC professors and three visiting lecturers, including a newspaper editor and a professor of folklore and musicology at Harvard University, eventually led class sessions. Suite C, the physical home in the Union for SGA, ended up being the home department for the course because we couldn’t find an academic department that was willing to be responsible for it. Students were responsible for developing a syllabus, getting course approval from UNC and the selection and scheduling of course lecturers. Since no department would handle registration, registrar Ray Strong allowed us students to conduct registration and drop-add in the lobby of “Suite C.” Those were the days of checkbook-size computer cards like this used for registration. Because of space allocation issues, course was held in the lounge of Morrison Dorm. It was a crazy 10 months trying to be students and at the same time pull off all these administrative tasks for this new course. A few months before the course was to begin in spring of ‘82, I got a call at my dorm room from Dean Williamson’s office. Over at Arts and Sciences, someone finally realized SGA had not dropped the course idea. I was told that I could not essentially lead a course in which students would be officially evaluated. Panicking, I looked at possible professors to take over. I remember trying to explain: “Student Government has developed a course, would you be willing to serve as administrator?” Given the SGA involvement, there was hesitancy by some. But then, I asked a former professor who agreed — longtime Honors Program and speech communications Professor Paul Brandes. He agreed to take over administrative and evaluation responsibilities. (Again some context: By 1981, he was a very senior professor who instead of coasting in his teaching career, was also enrolled at the law school — he graduated in 1983 and started a law practice — just unbelievable energy.)
That is what makes this a special place — if you look, you can find great professors willing to buy into student creativity. UNC — and one very special professor — allowed students to give birth to a vision and in turn gave us a very empowering experience. It was only a few years ago that I found out that Brandes Course Development Awards are to presented to UNC professors who create seminars that are interdisciplinary in nature and which stress innovative ways of teaching and learning. I always wondered why Professor Brandes agreed to give a group of students a chance. Unknown to us, creativity in undergraduate education was his passion.
Carolina – Its lasting impact on me
So finally as I think of Carolina, there is a collage of feelings. First, without exception, the dearest friends I have in life I met here. My college years were a fun, creative, fearless time — when I did not have sense enough to be scared by obstacles facing me. Now as an alum, particularly when I walk on the brick paths of McCorkle Place, I often think about the generations who came before me. Consequently, UNC for me is bigger than its current students, faculty, staff or living alumni. We are merely stewards of this institution for small slivers of time. I am proud to be a UNC alumnus and proud to be part of a vibrant legacy. I am excited for the future that lies ahead — as the legacy continues.