Chancellor Folt — thank you for that kind and generous introduction.
And President Spellings; Trustee Stone; Provost Dean; Professor Cairns and members of the faculty, including those who are honorably retired; Mr. Streeter and fellow employees; distinguished alumni; inspiring students; and honored guests — thank you also for giving me the chance to be with you this morning.
As we’ve heard, we’re gathered together to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of Old East, and by extension the birth of the University and of public higher education in this country.
But when I think of the birth of the University, I actually think of something that happened a little later, and that’s because of Bland Simpson.
Many of you know Bland, and if you don’t, I hope you’ll get to know him soon. He’s an alum-nus of the University, the Kenan Professor of English and Creative Writing, and the author of many books, all of them alive with his wisdom and his deep love for the people of North Carolina. He also plays a pretty mean piano.
About fifteen years ago, not long after I’d been fortunate enough to find my way to Chapel Hill, I heard Bland give a talk to a group of students who were thinking about joining us. The whole thing was terrific, as you’d expect from Bland. But the best part was the very first sentence: “Hinton James walked here from Wilmington searching for the truth.”
So thanks to Bland, when I think of the birth of the University, I think less of our first building than our first student. And when I think of our first student, I think less of where he started than of the miles he traveled.
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Maybe the same can be said for the University we’re celebrating.
From the beginning Carolina was a bold and brilliant idea. The notion that higher education was a public good; that it fostered “the happiness of a rising generation,” not just the perfection of individual students; that it belonged to the many rather than the few — this idea, this ideal, transformed our state and our nation, and also our world. It’s hard to imagine where we’d be today without it.
But if we’re going to be honest, we have to acknowledge that ours was an idea imperfectly realized. As good as was the place where we started — as noble, and as true — we’d be nowhere now if we hadn’t kept moving.
It took a hundred years for Sallie Walker Stockard to follow in the footsteps of Hinton James, in her case from Snow Camp, not from Wilmington. We wouldn’t let her walk across the stage at commencement, but she earned her degree anyway, the first woman to do so. She went on to write works of history that are in print to this day.
It took another thirty years for Henry Owl to get here from the Qualla Boundary — the first American Indian to be admitted. Twice denied the vote after earning his master’s, he went on to champion the rights of the Cherokee, testifying before Congress and securing U.S. citizenship for the people of the Eastern Band.
And it took yet another thirty years, along with a court order, for John Brandon, LeRoy Frasier, and Ralph Frasier to make it to Chapel Hill from Durham. Life here wasn’t easy for these young men — our first black undergraduates — and all three chose to earn their degrees elsewhere. But they made the rough way smoother for all who followed. And in doing so, they helped us come another step closer to our ideal and our identity as a public institution.
It’s right this morning that we remember not only those who laid the cornerstone of Old East, and not only our first student, but also these five students and the many others who worked hard over the last two centuries to move us forward. Remembering these brave people honors the bold vision of our founders. And it reminds us of our rich and complicated history — the great distance we’ve traveled since our birth.
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Because it’s not where we start; it’s the miles we travel. I don’t know that this was the truth that Hinton James was seeking, but it seems to me it’s at the heart of the place he found, or at least the place we have become and are becoming.
For here we believe that none of us should be limited by accidents of birth; that all of us should be free to go as far as our minds and our hearts and our own hard work can carry us; that when any of us finds a way to reach higher, the rest of us rise up, too.
It’s not where we start; it’s the miles we travel.
This belief, this truth, drives our commitment to excellence and innovation, opportunity and affordability, diversity and inclusion. It reminds us that we have much to learn from one an-other, and that together we can do what none of us can do alone. It leads us to live our lives in service to the people of North Carolina, who are capable of more than any of us can imagine, and who still depend on us to work with them, as partners and as friends, so that together we can foster “the happiness of a rising generation”—the happiness of our children, and of our children’s children.
It’s not where we start; it’s the miles we travel.
If we ever doubt this truth, there are reminders all around us—in every row of this auditorium and in every department and residence hall on this campus. Some of them we’ve come to know well:
And there are other reminders among the students who just joined us:
These new students aren’t alone. All of our students come from somewhere, and all of them travel their own paths to Chapel Hill. But they belong at the University, and the University be-longs to them. They have something to teach each other, and all of us. And it is hard not to want to get behind them. And it is hard not to love them.
* * *
It took courage for these students to join us. But it has always taken courage. It wasn’t easy to walk here from Wilmington, or from Snow Camp or Swain County, or from Durham. It won’t be easy to go where we’re going.
It won’t be easy to stay affordable.
It won’t be easy to foster prosperity for every North Carolinian, so that no child has to go to bed hungry and no parent has to lie awake in worry.
It won’t be easy to resolve — with honesty and urgency; with respect and humility — the horrible injustice of racism that clouded even the bright vision of our founders.
But our path has never been easy. And yet it’s ours to follow, and following it has always been our calling.
As long as there’s a discovery to be made, or a lesson to be taught and learned; as long as there’s a wound to be healed; as long as there’s a closed door to be opened, or an iron bar to be broken; friends, as long as our state and our country and our world still need us, the path before us will be clear, and worth the walking.
As we celebrate the birth of the University, let us draw strength from those who came before us and those who are beside us still — not only those we’ve named and honored here this morning, but also the thousands more who gave their lives to make this University, their University, our University, a place that’s worth fighting for, and a place that is public and for the people first and last — first and last, and always.