In the year 2000, a somewhat chaotic, party-like atmosphere that had prevailed for some years at Carolina’s Commencement ceremony was pretty much at its peak. A newcomer to the campus sat high above the stadium, shook his head and remarked, “We’ve got to do something about that. It’s not dignified.”
James Moeser seemed to have arrived at Chapel Hill with a sixth sense for what this campus should and could be, for what its students present and its long roster of alumni expected of it.
He says he’ll never forget the goosebumps, the first time he and Susan walked the brick paths of the University eight years ago knowing, in his words, “that we were about to have the high privilege of leading this great institution.” Carolina was a place he’d long held in high esteem from afar.
He got an extreme close-up very quickly. The University was unsure of his footing in the wake of Michael Hooker’s untimely death. Many of the top administrative positions were vacant, and state finances were uncertain.
It was, James said, a tremendous opportunity.
As he steps down as Carolina’s ninth chancellor – but not, we’re glad to say, from involvement with the University – he leaves an impressive record of success toward the perpetual quest to be America’s leading public university.
Carolina has reached far beyond its traditional sources of support to enable expansion of its core mission of scholarship and engagement. It has grown and modernized, not just in volume but with distinction. It has strengthened the bulwark of academic freedom. It has reached out farther and more deeply to the state it serves. And it has set new standards for inclusion.
The last of those is the one James would want us to speak of first. As he once said, “It breaks my heart to see an honors high school student who doesn’t think that college is a possibility.”
His leaving as chancellor coincides with a momentous milestone for the first class of Carolina Covenant scholars, who don cap and gown this weekend. James didn’t invent this innovative program that enables high-achieving low-income students to graduate debt-free: He championed it and saw it become a model for similar initiatives at universities across the country. In the words of John T. Casteen III, president of the University of Virginia, “By the Carolina Covenant and other steps to level education’s playing field, he has reshaped the way we think about opportunity and decency.”
The silent phase of the Carolina First campaign started just before James took office. As he saw it moving close to its $2.38 billion total he announced he’d step aside. He had spent more of his time attracting public and private resources than any other initiative, and the University was richer for professorships, scholarships, special academic programs and the laying of bricks.
He’ll be the first to tell you he spends some of his days as a frustrated architect. And the Carolina campus, with its combination of aging historic buildings and its expansion demands, presented quite the temptation. James insisted that restorations be done with care and with loyalty to great designs past. The results are seen from Memorial Hall to Murphey Hall, from the Global Ed Center to the Genetics complex. The campus is more functional and better preserved.
When UNC faced storms of challenge to its objectivity, its fairness, indeed its patriotism, the chancellor grabbed the helm. “We won’t go out seeking confrontations, but if they come to us, we’re going to defend the right of the faculty to pursue unpopular or controversial ideas and opinions,” he said. “And we’re going to maintain a respectful, civil environment for the display of disagreement.”
Said Joe Templeton, chair of the faculty, “His ability to step forward with the UNC flag unfurled at the right moment has been leveraged by his wisdom in letting the faculty lead the way in their daily activities without interference.”
As he announced his leaving, faculty retention was at a five-year high. UNC was about to celebrate its first Nobel Prize. It had put teeth behind one of the most popular claims of modern universities, “We’re going international,” by developing broad research and exchange relationships in many areas of the world and building one of the most extensive programs to help students go abroad to study.
The old concert organist even had a thing or two for the arts. He led the establishment of a signature performance series and saw to the designation of a sector of the old campus for expansion of music and fine arts facilities. He walked back to the site of the concert held at his inauguration, the decaying Hill Hall Auditorium, and said, “fix those seats, that stage and that floor – now.”
There is a tradition among chancellors of this University. They stay in and around Chapel Hill permanently. The Moesers, well traveled though they are, have found it their home, too. James will join Susan on the faculty, becoming what he calls “professor without portfolio.” It seems the best course for someone who’d be at home in so many different corners of the campus.
The Carolina he came to know, and that came to revere and respect him, is known for its “wonderful culture of openness, freedom, civility and collegiality” which “celebrates excellence wherever it occurs, honors teaching and embraces selflessly a tradition of public service.”
Those are James Moeser’s own words, but they could have been used by anyone to describe the University that grew in all that stature under his guidance.
Carolina, he says, still gives him goosebumps.
The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the awards dinner and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.
The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal has been awarded since 1978 to alumni and others who have provided outstanding service to the GAA and/or to the University. The award is presented at the annual Alumni Luncheon on the weekend of reunions and Commencement in May. This year’s recipients are Chancellor James Moeser, who is stepping down June 30 after eight years leading the University; Roger Perry ’71, chair of the Board of Trustees; Rusty Carter ’71, secretary of the Board of Trustees; and Dennis and Joan Gillings, who in 2007 donated $50 million to the School of Public Health in addition to their previous service.