Speeches

2021 University Day

"The ideal of a public university — a place at once deeply enmeshed in the world and set apart from it — has always been fragile. The success of this place was never a foregone conclusion, and it still isn’t.  But every generation has proven that this fragile ideal is a powerful call to action. It took the hard work and dedication of thousands of Tar Heels since our founding."

Welcome to University Day and the 228th birthday of our nation’s first public university – the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is an honor to be with you today as Carolina’s 12th Chancellor. 

University Day is about bringing our community together — to remember our story, to honor the ideals of this place and to recognize the shared responsibility of upholding them. 

Thank you to Board of Trustees members, Board of Governors members, officials from the town of Chapel Hill including Mayor Pam Hemminger … and everyone joining us in person and online from all over the world. 

228 years ago today, our founders set the first stone at Old East into the ground, and the Carolina story began.

It took centuries for us to grow into the leading global public research university we are today. Centuries that saw this institution persevere through wars, economic hardship, social upheaval, political strife — and, of course, pandemics.

We canceled classes today in response to the mental health crisis we are seeing both on our campus and across our nation. This crisis has directly impacted members of our community – we’ve had two students die on campus in the past month. 

Some members of the platform party are not here today because they needed to take care of themselves and others during this time.

As chancellor, a professor and a parent, my heart breaks for all those whose suffering goes unnoticed. We are committed to providing the support that our community needs, drawing from the expertise of people across our campus.

I want to take a moment of silence now to remember those we have lost and the suffering our community has been through. Please join me.

Thank you.

Amid pain, suffering and despair, where do we find the strength to move forward? How do we build resilience?

I don’t have the answers, but the word that comes to mind for me is hope. Hope is what enables us to build resilience. Hope….that things will get better, that our sacrifices are not in vain, is where we get the strength to get up and keep going. 

Universities are built on the idea of hope. We are educating future leaders because we have hope for our future. We spend hours in the lab looking for answers because we hope the solution is out there. We serve our state because we hope that our state can grow and prosper.

We’ve seen this hope in our history. This university used to be for white men only and that is no longer true … just look at this stage.

We have adapted, changed and become a place where our diversity makes us stronger and more resilient.

I recognize that many believe this change has occurred too slowly. But the path forward is through learning about our past, telling our stories honestly, and holding on to the hope that together, we can make a better future. 

Just in the last 19 months, I have seen time and time again our community responding with hope to a world upended by Covid.

UNC’s vast network of research and medical professionals mobilized to develop treatments and vaccines. Public health experts served in communities across our state. 

Our business school offered support and guidance for companies and policymakers dealing with economic shutdowns and the stress of an uneven recovery.

Our experts in education and child development helped teachers, school administrators, and families keep students on track through months of school closures.

UNC School of Government provided expertise to public officials, and through our new initiative, Carolina Across 100, we are working with government and community leaders in counties across our state to provide resources where they are needed most.

And, of course, our faculty, staff, and students found ways to deliver the most vital pieces of a Carolina education – mostly online – so that slowing the coronavirus didn’t require slowing the progress toward a degree.

This past weekend we celebrated the Class of 2020 and their resilience in the face of the pandemic during their final few months at Carolina.

The past 19 months have not been easy, but as I’ve said before — this University was not built for easy things. Great universities help society adapt to adversity, anticipate the future and prepare for challenges we can only begin to imagine.

We are resilient because we’ve had to be. The ideal of a public university — a place at once deeply enmeshed in the world and set apart from it — has always been fragile. The success of this place was never a foregone conclusion, and it still isn’t. 

But every generation has proven that this fragile ideal is a powerful call to action. It took the hard work and dedication of thousands of Tar Heels since our founding.

Those are the people I want to honor and remember. People like our distinguished alumni, faculty and staff being honored today, whose professional lives have embodied resilience and a commitment to service.

We are recognizing not only the resilience of this university, but also our state’s unique higher education system. The UNC System celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

It is a system that has survived the test of time and made us here in Chapel Hill stronger. This system has connected us with our state in ways we couldn’t have possibly imagined even 50 years ago. 

UNC President Bill Friday, in describing our university in 1986, said this: “The university stands there today completely capable of examining any controversial question, dealing with any great social issue, working to improve the state and all of its people.” 

This is what gives me hope. Our university is capable of finding cures, examining difficult issues, and changing our students’ lives. Our resilience as an institution gives me hope that together, we will continue to make this world a better place. 

Thank you.