News & Messages

Embracing Change at the Speed of Innovation


Thank you Bruce – seeing you here and hearing your generous, kind comments means the world to me. I also am very grateful to the organizers for inviting me to speak with the community at this special moment in our history.

Walking here this morning, I was acutely aware of the incredible honor and the responsibility I feel as Chancellor of this historic and important university.

FROM 2013 TO 2015

When I first spoke at Carolina, exactly two years ago at my Installation as Chancellor, I thanked you, for your welcome and the sense of optimism and purpose for the future we would build together. I said how fortunate I was to be here, and that I believed Carolina could be the leader in shaping the model for the 21st century great, global, public research universities in America – we would build on our excellence and innovation, protect our accessibility and affordability; deepen our commitment to the state; and stay true to our core principles of enlightenment and freedom – while ushering in a period of innovation like none before.

I also said we would gather strength by pushing ourselves to meet these and other challenges. I may not have anticipated the form some of the challenges would take, but everything I said then – I believe even more strongly today. I have now experienced first-hand, in a thousand different ways, how our diverse, passionate, forward- and globally-minded community is already changing the world. So while we have work ahead, I continue to believe the best is yet to come.


Today, in the continuation of a great tradition, we celebrate our 222nd birthday. And, on this University Day I’m going focus on five major turning points in our history and how they both define us today and are the launching pads for the future. I’ll close by centering on the exciting work we need to undertake together over the coming year as we move to define our own future, and make the next big leap for Carolina. This will be Carolina’s year of looking forward.


220 years ago, in 1795 the first student enrolled at Carolina – making this forever the first public university in America – it began with a dream and a grand vision for the future rising from the grit and ideals fought for in the Revolutionary War – to be a place of lux et libertas, light and liberty.


100 years ago, in 1915, when President Edward Kidder Graham was inaugurated he drew a new map that gave a new purpose for America’s first public university. His map redrew Carolina’s mission and stretched it beyond meeting the needs of its campus to supporting the education and development of the entire state. Graham looked beyond the state’s poverty and illiteracy and saw that Carolina was the only engine that could pull the state out of poverty and into a modern era of commerce and greater wealth.

His pivot started Carolina’s rise to become a leading 20th century University with a broad, outward-looking mission. He also started the movement that would result in one of the greatest research engines in the country – with nearly $1 billion dollars in research expenditures just this year.

Leaders throughout the 20th century kept Carolina charging ahead. But I also credit President Graham for creating our service mission – one of the strongest, most selfless elements of our identity.

So, what does it mean to “serve” the state now, 100 years later? Here are a few ways; there are many others.

First, we serve our state by providing a world-class education at a great value:

  • 82% of our first-year class are from North Carolina, and we give them an outstanding liberal arts-based education, that offers depth, breadth and many opportunities for hands-on learning, discovery, internships and global education;
  • They graduate and get jobs at rates that approach those at America’s most elite private universities.
  • However, like all students of this generation they will be moving quickly from their first to their next new job. Most likely the jobs they land a few years out will be in fields that don’t exist today.
  • So, serving them means preparing them for that – not only to be creative, flexible and critical thinkers; they have to have skills to move quickly and be ready to take advantage of new opportunities, and they have to be able to work effectively in diverse teams, face disruption and learn to speak a new language of difference.
  • Finally, in addition to exposure to deep content and educational experiences, we serve them by helping them master their major, develop as ethical thoughtful citizens, and graduate with an understanding of the world and humanity that will enrich their lives.
  • Just meeting our amazing graduates and alumni, I know we are pretty good at all this. Look at our pioneering and distinguished alumni honored today.
  • Our graduates are active in every field and many of them already are going on to create new jobs and industries. Just think of Jason Kilar, who co-founded HULU before he was 40; or Shruti Shah; she created MOVE LOOT at age 24 with some friends in 2013, and it is already national with 150 employees.
  • Finally, Carolina’s undergraduate in-state cost also is the least expensive of our 14 peer public universities.
  • And the debt for students here – $17,000 – is roughly the same as it has been since 2003 in annualized dollars and just over half the average debt for U.S. students.

I think a second fundamental way we serve our state is by helping people in every county:

  • Our faculty, staff and students are out working in 100 counties of the state, 365 days of the year, as nurses, teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers, through adult education programs, in hospitals and clinics – and more.
  • A recent count shows undergraduate and graduate students put in 1.7 million hours of service valued at $39 million.

Third, I believe we serve our state by stimulating the economy:

  • A recent independent study showed Carolina, conservatively, generates $7 billion dollars to the economy of North Carolina every year;
  • Our outstanding athletics and arts programs not only educate our students, they ignite business and the local community by attracting more than a million people to our campus every single year – this creates jobs, supports the local economy and brings energy and loyalty to Carolina.

It is no wonder that many states are vying to have truly great public universities in their states.


Roughly 60 years ago (starting in 1955 through the ‘70s), the University took another huge leap forward, by opening its doors to fully include the rest of the population – women, people of color, and people from all levels of income from across the state. Despite the accepted definition of ‘public’, I believe this was when Carolina truly began to become the University of the People.

These changes began in a time of passionate debate, civil unrest, social and economic change, and public discord. Similar debates continue on our campus and campuses across America to this day. And just as the will of the people at our university drove change in the past, our community’s determination now already has helped spur the historic decision of the Board of Trustees last spring to rename Carolina Hall, and our initiation of Carolina Conversations about race and place, political ideas, and the rights and manner of public discussion and debate that will be starting again this month.

So what does it mean to be public today, 60 years later? I’d like to offer a few examples:

I believe that being public means we make it financially possible for Tar Heels from all backgrounds with the talent and drive to come here:

  • The creation of the Carolina Covenant in 2004 made this promise very real and today the Covenant provides a debt-free education to 14% of our student body, from families with a median family income of $27,000.
  • 20% of our students are first generation; and we have the greatest number of active and retired military students on campus since post-WWII; and 45% of all our students receive significant need-based aid.

Being public also means we create new programs to meet the rising needs of the people:

  • Like the UNC Core we just launched to provide the first two years of core curriculum in a very high quality way to active duty military;
  • Or like our investment in the historic Northside neighborhood and the IFC shelter for homeless men with the Town of Chapel Hill;

Being public means we receive a substantial investment from taxpayers in the state. The median family income in North Carolina is about $50,000; their support means a lot:

  • Despite recent budget challenges, the N.C. State Government continues to ensure we are among the best-resourced University systems in the nation.
  • And they have put forward an upcoming bond referendum including funds for a facility to increase the number of doctors we train at Carolina each year. We need for it to be passed, and if it does it will show again how the citizens of the state believe in and generously support our mission to educate and improve the prosperity, health and well-being of North Carolinians.
  • Nevertheless, no states cover full costs of public education anymore, and so being public now means that our future excellence, our ability to meet our most cherished goals, depends increasingly on our generous alumni and supporters who are giving at record levels, and believe in our mission. We are very grateful to them.


Roughly 25 years ago, the world changed with the development of digital technologies that are still revolutionizing the way we communicate, create and access knowledge. UNC-Chapel Hill is among the leaders in a number of digital areas including STEM education, music, our online MBA, Big Data, library management, and in a host of medical practices.

The clamor and churn, the challenges and opportunities created by the digital revolution will continue to shape the most fundamental ways we work and create impact. We are just getting started!


Five years ago – on University Day – Carolina took another giant step forward, with the launch of its five-year Innovation Roadmap. “Placing innovation at the center of the University” is the kind of idea, a so-called “Wildly Important Goal,” that can set the tone for an entire institution.

Carolina’s leaders declared, “America’s first public university must be her most innovative university.” It became and still is one of the top priorities for our Board of Trustees. A lot happened:

  • We reorganized to accelerate movement of discovery to practice;
  • New courses, minors and programs were designed and taught by innovators and Professors of the Practice;
  • Companies were launched;
  • Support for early ideas, and new spaces and equipment to make things sprouted up;
  • Social entrepreneurship, already so well established in the Campus Y, skyrocketed;
  • It was recently calculated that Carolina innovators have started more than 300 companies, 150 active in North Carolina with annual revenue of $7 billion, and currently employ nearly 38,000 people;
  • And this doesn’t begin to touch the innovation other than building companies our community is doing.


What happened after President Graham made his speech showed the wisdom of his vision. While there is plenty more to do, the education, health and the welfare of North Carolina has improved greatly. North Carolina also is a destination for a continuous stream of new voices and fresh perspectives from people coming to the state, and from energized people who grew up in the state.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions” and so, too, does Carolina evolve and expand its dreams with every new Tar Heel.


This year we are going to bring forward plans for Carolina’s path forward. We start in a great position: we have a great, dedicated staff committed to creating our future, record-breaking applications, outstanding undergraduate and graduate students and faculty, soaring research, historic levels of philanthropy, and we are seeing ground-breaking impacts.

It is often the case that when you are most willing to change you find it easier to determine what compromises you will not make. Our core values remain true – light and liberty, open inquiry, academic excellence, student-centered focus, access and affordability, and excellence in everything we do.

But how we teach, communicate and do our work needs to change quickly to take advantage of exploding technologies, remain competitive and relevant for new generations, and keep our place at the forefront in research and innovation.

We already are building on strategic plans developed by schools and units and working on our comprehensive capital campaign. We are reaching out across the community to develop these further, and working to align our facility master plan and plans for sustainability with our strategic goals. And we are asking ourselves important questions about how to fulfill our mission for the state, in light of our state’s need to educate and prepare a growing population to thrive in the highly global, highly skilled, 21st century innovation economy.

We have seen what bold initiatives can do to change our University and the impact they have on our state. President Graham helped Carolina expand to and beyond the borders of the state. Today we are creating a Carolina with impact extending to the edges of the world. It is no secret that what happens at Carolina has great consequence to our state – and if we are to continue to create transformational change in North Carolina, we must think globally in everything we do; view the entire world as an extension of our state.

We can’t be bystanders in this great transformation. We are living in a great Innovation Generation where anyone at any place can make transformational change a reality. To push our innovation capacity and global boundaries, we have to embrace and manage for change that is taking place faster than ever before – change needs to occur at the speed of innovation.

Fast change is not always the hallmark of the academy, and it can be uncomfortable. But we are ideally equipped for this – because we are in the business of human potential, and seeing beyond perceived limits. And we have been, and always will be change-agents for good.

Change also needs to start now, with us, and some is needed quickly. For example, today’s students have grown up digitally native, not just open to change but demanding it. They are restless for new ways to learn and they want to create an impact on the world faster than previous generations. Moreover, knowledge has exploded, new fields are being created, and new ways of learning are becoming well understood.

  • In the coming weeks, I will be challenging our faculty to re-invent key aspects of undergraduate and graduate education and curriculum in every school to better meet 21st century needs.
  • I will be challenging our faculty to identify the most promising new partnerships and focal areas for critically important research where Carolina can excel.
  • I will be challenging our students to help us keep the Carolina Conversations going, and to provide perspectives for improving the safety and quality of their experience.
  • I will be challenging our administration to work with the community on new ways to fund and operate that are strategic, sustainable and nimble and that balance our community’s values.
  • And finally, I will be challenging all of us to work with our local communities to increase the safety and well being of our community and to provide high- and obtainable- quality of life for all who call this great area home.


Like President Graham 100 years ago, we are again at a moment that calls for re-imagining the great, global, public research university. We must have courage to re-define our role in a rapidly changing world. We must be bold to rise above our already-great expectations. And we must be fearless to do all this in spite of the constraints placed upon us.

100 years from now, when another chancellor is delivering his or her speech on the 322nd University Day, I hope they will say that we had that audacity … that 2015 was the dawn of a new era at Carolina. But, what I truly believe is the next century will move faster – exponentially faster in untold, unimaginable ways – so that the real tests of our mettle will approach much more quickly.

Today, we accept that the greatness of a university is found in the words of President Graham, in “its ability to satisfy the supreme human need of the people and time(s) it serves.” From today forward, we will be working with renewed effort to bring the best of Carolina from the Well to the World.

As most of you know, I spent three days last August with famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. We were at a conference in Stockholm convening the world’s experts on black holes and Hawking radiation, led by one of our professors, Laura Mersini-Houghton. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, one I wish everyone – particularly our students – had the opportunity to experience, because I believe the lessons I learned are applicable to us all.

Hawking has been driven to find answers for the world’s toughest questions. I learned a lot from simply observing him interact with others. The pursuit of knowledge is where you learn to be nimble, open to ideas, willing to try new things. It can be and usually is hard work and very messy. But opportunities to change can be fleeting – doors open and close quickly – and it requires much greater flexibility if we are to move at this accelerated speed.

Scientists and researchers know that if you don’t challenge legacy thinking, you’ll miss those open doors. We can’t let that happen. Identifying and seizing those openings will help define us and make it possible to thrive in this century of exponential change and opportunity.

One thing I learned from Professor Hawking: No one is expected to know all the answers. While finding truth is wonderful, the real passion for these and many other scientists is in asking the right questions and debating the possible solutions. They say that only with great questions come mind-blowing answers. One image I will always carry came after a full day of conference papers, and hours of mind-stretching debate for Professor Hawking. This took incredible energy for him, but I will never forget the scene, nearly three hours later, of him sitting with Nobel laureate Gerard t’Hooft, bent head-to-head debating points, like two young graduate students after an all-nighter still scribbling equations at the blackboard. That is the driving power of intellectual inquiry.

We are embarking on that path, towards an incredible future – with mind-blowing innovations ahead. It’s not coming. It’s upon us. If there is one idea, one “Wildly Important Goal” to propel us forward, it is to embrace change at the speed of innovation. Welcome to the Carolina century.