Frank Porter Graham Lecture on Excellence Order of the Golden Fleece

Remarks delivered by Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 on April 5, 2013

Thank you for inviting me to deliver the annual Frank Porter Graham Lecture on Excellence. It is an honor to be Argonaut Number 1664 and to join so many who have done so much for Carolina. I was proud to be part of the 100th anniversary celebration and remember so well Francis Collins’ [’77 MD] talk from that event.

I went back to read the book that was produced on the 100th anniversary and, in looking through the photographs, I wondered who the young child was that was sitting behind my name tag. Whoever it was had brown hair and seemed about three inches taller than I am.

I count myself lucky. My hair may be gray, but my predecessor in this job had no hair left when he retired. In all seriousness, I count myself lucky to have had served at all.

The ideals of this University have required significant sacrifice, from others far more than from me. All of this sacrifice has been worth it and will be so in the future. In that vein, it is significant and worth pausing on the namesake of this lecture. Frank Graham [class of 1909] brought so much to Chapel Hill and the world and, perhaps most significantly, his eloquence about academic freedom. At his inauguration speech in 1931, he said that academic freedom meant “freedom of the scholar to find and report the truth honestly without interference by the University, the state, or any interests whatsoever. … Without such freedom of research we would have no university and no democracy.”

This determination ensured that the University could continue to build a distinguished faculty attracted by the promise of freedom. That reinforced the promise of UNC that began upon our admission to the Association of American Universities in 1922. As the first Southern university admitted to the AAU, Carolina, under Graham’s leadership, became the beacon of knowledge and liberty that it is today.

Graham wanted people to understand the social value of academic freedom — that protecting the faculty’s search for truth wherever that led would improve peoples’ lives and ultimately bring great benefit to the state. It was there and then that the seed was planted that the greatest service a public university can provide for its state is academic excellence. I will come back to this point numerous times tonight. Let me say it again in Dr. Frank’s words: “freedom of the scholar to find and report the truth.”

Also at that 100th anniversary, we recognized William Clyde Friday [’48 LLB] as the Argonaut of the second half-century. Mr. Friday conceived and championed the idea that the University could achieve academic excellence while providing public service to the people of North Carolina. “The problems of the people are the problems the university must deal with,” he often told us.

This vision was critical to the phenomenal growth that Carolina and the state experienced in the 1960s and ’70s and many years thereafter. It was a brilliant strategy that inspired the moderate Democrats that occupied the Legislature to support Carolina in ways that other states envy to this day. We enjoy the greatest level of state support and nearly the lowest tuition in the AAU, and that is all due to the genius of Mr. Friday’s both/and strategy of academic excellence plus public service. And not only did Carolina become great, but we got the North Carolina Memorial Hospital, public television, the Institute (and later School) of Government and much more.

In the last decade or so, Mr. Friday’s model became more and more difficult to implement. And that difficulty began to accelerate in 2008. The financial crisis was followed by massive political change, and the “good government” ideals of Friday and [Albert] Coates [’18] lost traction. We adapted. The N.C. Memorial Hospital became a multibillion-dollar behemoth; public television came to rely more on contributions than state support; and the School of Government launched an online degree in collaboration with one of the most aggressive corporations in online education. All the while, the academic excellence of the University surged. Research grants moved into the top 10 in the nation; the medical school and hospital exploded; and undergraduate applications soared.

Mr. Friday and I disagreed about whether this was irreversible. I believe it is, and in many ways, I believe it is for the best. Our faculty and students are more diverse now and more focused on the problems not just of North Carolina but of the world. Public service and applied research have merged. And the old-fashioned liberalism that fueled the state support that catalyzed Mr. Friday’s dream is unlikely to return. That was true even in the early part of this century, as the generous leadership in the Senate became more focused on funding health care and scientific research. This pained Mr. Friday, who implored me to embrace what he saw as a more compassionate and scholarly vision of Albert Coates, Howard Odum and Paul Green [’21].

But I told Mr. Friday that if those men were here, they would see the realities of today. And they would harken back, as I do, to Frank Graham’s original vision of academic excellence: “Freedom of the scholar to find and report the truth.” That is the greatest public service, and our greatest public servants are engaged public scholars. If we adhere to building academic excellence on the backdrop of academic freedom, we are staying true to our public nature.

You’ve asked me to speak about the state of UNC and of public higher education. We are in challenging times, when many people — not just new legislators and leaders in Raleigh — are questioning the value of the research university. We are being challenged to be more accountable and more efficient, to do a better job at educating students and keeping them safe. Leaders of research universities especially are challenged to better communicate the relevance of their mission and to imagine and implement creative ways to ensure that their mission continues to address society’s greatest questions.

At the same time, we face the increasingly complex challenge of managing large, decentralized institutions with many different facets: undergraduate residences, real estate development, student mental health, medical research, multibillion-dollar endowment, commercial sports, fundraising, government relations, destination resort amenities and town politics. When you think about how overwhelming all of this seems, we’ve done surprisingly well.

So the first point I want to make is that the lesson we should learn from the past is that University leaders and faculty members in the 1930s and the 1950s did not shirk from telling politicians and citizens why they needed to support UNC, even as they resisted interference from those outside the academy. We need to follow their lead. We need to be more full-throated in our pursuit of excellence in research and teaching. Bill Friday is not here to push his both/and of academic excellence and service to N.C. We no longer have the luxury of using good government service as a public proxy for academic achievement.

The application of original knowledge is the new public service. It provides us with a way to engage the public in a discussion about academic achievement.

Think about the ways that we conceptualize excellence in research. Within the University, we believe that deep knowledge of a particular subject is a good in and of itself. The experience of deep thought enriches the world. Academics are here because of this belief, but it’s not going to get you too far at Crabtree Valley Mall or the legislative building.

At the next stage, thankfully, some people in the wider public accept the idea that describing the universe, the world and the people in it is a wholesome and important enterprise on its own. Those folks are our close friends in the public and certainly everyone inside the academy.

The next level of concrete example states that basic research is valuable in providing building blocks for the inventors of the future. Curious people get that; a lot of the basic research we do now is going to be useful in the future, but we have no way of knowing the facets our younger brothers and sisters will need 20 years from now. If we stop basic research today, we will inhibit progress tomorrow. A wider audience can appreciate this point, and it is a powerful one. When Einstein formulated the general theory of relativity, he was not imagining how it would be used in the Maps app on our iPhones.

But there is a family of even more concrete examples that we can use to make the case for basic research, and that is the direct application of knowledge in real time by the same faculty who make the discoveries. Today’s Einstein can write the theory one day and write the code for the Maps app the next. And while this rubric risks valuing the app more than the theory, it is a plausible way to engage the public about the nature and importance of basic research. At this point, it may be the only way. And it is simply a modernization of Mr. Friday’s original idea of using public service as a way to engage the public about the value of the University. That idea had the analogous risks of valuing the public engagement more than the original insight.

This modern view of applied knowledge can work. It will require us to maintain a consistent ethic of research across all fields and all levels of application. But that is what we have always done. That’s how we got here.

“Freedom of the scholar to find and report the truth.”

My second point relates to the complexity of the University and the level of sophistication of our business dealings. I’ve already talked about all of the complicated functions we have. We’re not a corporation, and we’re not a business. But we have important relationships with corporations and business. Big corporations. Big business. Big banks, big sports, big health insurance, big hedge funds, big food, big real estate, big pharma. Most of these relate to the ancillary functions that universities have acquired over the last decades.

There are lots of theories about how it got this way. My friends on the right think it’s the big government idea of universities-being-all-things-to-all-people run amok. My friends on the left think that it’s what happens when neoliberals sell out in order to aggregate power that will later be selectively redistributed.

Guess what. They’re both right. Ironically, the operational complexity of the University obtains precisely because Friday’s and Graham’s visions were so successful at building support and growing the institution. What they built evolved and adapted. But how we got here isn’t what’s important now.

We can’t spend 50 years inviting ourselves to a dinner party with big business and then sit at the kids’ table when we get there. We need to be hard-nosed business people in our dealings with big corporations. Acting like we’re humble academics will allow them to run over us and give us the worst of both worlds. Like it or not, we’ve committed to playing their game at their table. Let’s put on our blue suits and act like it. As long as we remember why we’re doing it, we’ll keep moving in the right direction. And you know why we’re doing this by now:

“Freedom of the scholar to find and report the truth.”

Most great talks have three points, and I’ve only made two. I know they were more challenging than you were hoping to get from an after-dinner talk. But I’m afraid my third point is the roughest.

It’s time to stop seeing the world through Carolina blue glasses. Carolina in My Mind and the azaleas behind the Old Well are beautiful, but we’re not here to listen to music or admire flowers. We’re here to compete with the great universities of America. I’m not saying James Taylor and the azaleas are not a huge help. They are. But we’ve got to play hardball. At Commencement last May, Mike Bloomberg said: “I’ve been in business and government. Business is dog-eat-dog, and government is just the opposite.” I’m afraid Gracie Mansion and South Building have a lot in common. And that requires us not only to compete ruthlessly but also to be objective about where we stand. So here are some hard truths.

The ACC is not a unique conference. We have the same problems as the SEC in sports. In fact, we have more schools on probation right now. And Carolina didn’t have a magic spell that allowed us to win all of those national championships and not have occasional problems with academic support or compliance. Our dedicated students and coaches who work in college sports have a hard enough job without unrealistic expectations making it even harder. It’s our job to support and protect them, not the other way around. And the only way to keep from repeating the problems of the last three years is to be realistic about the challenges and vigilant about preventing the problems. Let’s play by the rules, support the students and win the ball games.

Student well-being is highly strained by drugs, sexual assault and mental health issues. It’s not easy being a college student today. It wasn’t when I was here, either. At least now we’re talking about it. We can’t stop.

And I realize that this next statement may get me kicked out of the Order of the Golden Fleece, but here goes: The student-run honor system is an idea whose time has expired. It was great 130 years ago, and maybe even 30 years ago. Close your eyes and imagine the people who conceived of the honor system. Do they look anything like the students of today?

I know it’s a tradition we cherish, and many people just assume that it’s always been the same since it was first started. But we’ve examined the honor system over the years and adjusted it. Now’s the time to do it again. It’s unfair to expect students to negotiate difficult, complex situations which even trained professionals struggle over. And it makes it too easy for faculty to check out. Most faculty won’t send cases to the Honor Court. I know. I was one of them.

I know these are tough statements. But they’re spoken by someone who has given everything to Carolina. And gotten so much in return. And everything I got came because Bill Friday and Frank Graham and a lot of other people made sure this was a place where people like me had the freedom of the scholar to find and report the truth.

So there’s my three points. Shout from the mountaintop our full-throated, unapologetic devotion to academic excellence. Sit at the grownups’ table with big business. And stop seeing the world through Carolina blue glasses. All three will get us where we’re going if we don’t forget Frank Graham’s 1931 words.

I could have gotten up here and told some funny stories about things that happened to me the last five years and played a couple songs on the piano. It would have made for a more enjoyable evening. But I didn’t, because you are the group that can help Carolina the most. You already have. And you will for years to come.

In these trying times for Carolina and public higher education, the Golden Fleece needs to be less of a secret society and more of a voice that continues to echo Graham’s words. You can help us modernize our processes for student conduct. You can help us avoid slipping back into our old assumptions. And when someone asks you the most important factors challenging public higher education, I hope you’ll tell them four things: student well-being, access to higher education, preservation of the liberal arts, and excellence in research across all fields.

These are the four pillars that held up Frank Graham and Bill Friday and all of us. They are the rocks we cling to in all kinds of bad weather. And they are the principles that were given by higher education to the new republic of America; to the new state of North Carolina; to the students who studied freely, challenged assumptions and changed the world; and to the faculty who produced new ideas, served and lifted up the people of North Carolina and beyond, and produced the innovations that define the future.

The “freedom of the scholar to find and report the truth honestly without interference by the University, the state, or any interests whatsoever. … Without such freedom of research we would have no university and no democracy.”

Thank you all and Hark the Sound.


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