University Day, the annual celebration commemorating Oct. 12, 1793, when the cornerstone was laid for UNC’s first building, Old East, was held amid much fanfare this year.
During the ceremony, held in Memorial Hall, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz awarded five Distinguished Alumni Awards. Karen Parker ’65, the first Black woman to enroll as an undergraduate at UNC, was recognized for her work in journalism that included stints at the Winston-Salem Journal, the Salt Lake City Tribune and the Los Angeles Times and her bravery and activism during her student days at UNC. Other recipients included Nicole Bates ’00 (MPH) ’08 (DRPH), director of strategic partnerships and initiatives for Pivotal Ventures, a company founded by Melinda French Gates; Jerry Blackwell ’84 (’87 JD), a trial attorney with 35 years of experience who has been nominated by President Biden to become a federal judge in Minnesota; F. DuBois Bowman ’00 (PhD), dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health; and Charles Robbins ’87, chair and CEO of Cisco Systems.
The celebration was held during University Research Week, and Guskiewicz took the opportunity to highlight research at Carolina while invoking the memory of Charles Kuralt ’55.
“Three characteristics of the University have remained constant: Our commitment to excellence in teaching, research and service,” he said. “At this year’s University Day, we are focusing on that second vital calling, research. I think of that famous Charles Kuralt line, what is it that binds us to this place? We are the University of the People, and that mission unites us around a common purpose, but the glue that binds us is a curiosity about the world, a desire to learn and to know more. That curiosity finds its purest expression in research, pushing the boundaries of human knowledge.”
Guskiewicz, a researcher who studied concussions and brain injuries before assuming the University’s top administrative post, said Carolina has doubled its research in the last 15 years and brings in $1.2 billion annually in research funding for the state of North Carolina.
“Our history gives me reasons to hope for the future,” Guskiewicz said, according to the news site Chapelboro.com. “When we think about the issues in our world today, it’s easy to be discouraged. But I have hope because I’ve seen what our researchers have accomplished in 229 years. What more they will do in the next 229.”
The tradition to celebrate the laying of the first cornerstone of the University began 84 years ago and has grown to include a procession down Cameron Avenue in front of the Old Well, a ceremony in Memorial Hall and fewer afternoon classes to allow students an opportunity to attend the events.
Carolina first celebrated University Day in 1877, after Gov. Zebulon B. Vance, then-chair of the Board of Trustees, ordered that the day “be observed with appropriate ceremonies under the direction of the faculty.”
University Day celebrations have featured speeches from distinguished members of the faculty and honored visitors, including President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and President Bill Clinton in 1993. Many North Carolina governors have attended University Day ceremonies, including Luther Hodges (1919), Jim Hunt ’64 JD, Terry Sanford ’39 (’46 JD), Jim Martin, Mike Easley ‘72, Bev Perdue, Pat McCrory and Roy Cooper ’79 (’82 JD).
UNC System President Peter Hans commemorated the flagship institution on its leadership while praising its 15 sister campuses.
“From the moment I stepped onto this campus as a first-generation college student carrying equal parts awe, ambition and anxiety, I knew this place was special,” Hans said. “But the meaning of University Day, the marvel of the nation’s first and best public university has become even clearer as my time as president of the University of North Carolina System. You can tell a lot about a society by the occasions it chooses to mark, by the milestones it chooses to celebrate, and that’s why the tradition of University Day means so much to me.”
Chair of the UNC Board of Trustees Dave Boliek Jr. ’90 cited a need for campus wide improvements.
“We can’t expect a university that’s been around since the time of George Washington to not need substantial maintenance,” Boliek said. “We have hundreds of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance and repairs needed on our campus. I can tell you today that the BOT and chancellor and administration are committed to finding creative ways to maintain and revitalize our campus. Now is the time.”
UNC Student Body President Taliajah Vann said in her University Day remarks the institution should honor the legacy of Tar Heels who have pushed the school forward throughout its “dynamic history.”
“As only the third Black woman elected student body president, and first Black Student Movement president to ever hold this office, I have an unrelenting appreciation for the history of changemakers at Carolina, alumni, current students, faculty, staff and administrators alike,” she said.
Many University leaders were recognized during the ceremony, including GAA Chair David Keesler ’84.
— Laurie D. Willis ‘86