Speeches

2022 University Day

"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."

Faculty, staff, and guests on stage at University Day
229th University Day celebration at Memorial Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Welcome to University Day and the 229th birthday of our nation’s first public university – the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My name is Kevin Guskiewicz and it’s an honor to be here today as Carolina’s 12th chancellor.

I want to thank all of you for joining us today. Faculty, students, staff, and members of our UNC-Chapel Hill leadership team; Board of Trustees members, Board of Governors members, President Peter Hans; and elected officials across North Carolina and locally here in Chapel Hill. I am grateful for your support and love for our university.

Through these 229 years, we have seen a lot of change at Carolina. From that first stone at Old East to the ground-breaking of a new building at our business school just two weeks ago, our campus has grown from a few buildings around the Davie Poplar to a vast landscape supporting a multibillion-dollar a year enterprise – fueling economic growth across our state and changing lives around the world.

Yet three characteristics of the university have remained constant: our commitment to excellence in teaching, research and service.

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.

Through the dissemination of our impactful research, we teach and we serve to benefit society. When Carolina’s researchers see the problems of this world, and particularly the challenges in our state, we act. Our researchers don’t look around to see who else might respond. We face the problem head-on, roll up our sleeves, and we get to work.

As a faculty member for 27 years, I have seen this in action every day.  In my own career, I saw how athletes were treated for concussions on the playing field, and I knew we could do better. Alongside an amazing team of talented and curious researchers, I have dedicated my life to making sports safer.  Every one of our researchers has a story like that, whether it’s a family member who died from cancer, a mother who struggled with postnatal depression or a relative who suffers from addiction. Each of us has devoted our lives to problems that don’t have easy answers. These questions have forced us to develop a certain kind of curiosity that doesn’t give up.  Our researchers refuse to shrug their shoulders and move on with their lives. They have a nagging sense that something is just not right. As Zora Neale Hurston put it: “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”

Throughout our history, Carolina’s researchers have asked the question “Why?” They have poked and pried, refusing to listen to conventional wisdom and assumptions. Our research is never just academic. It is curiosity with a purpose.

Let me share a few examples:

In 1912, Professor William D. MacNider – the first graduate of our School of Medicine in 1901 and who later became dean – published his findings that Bright’s Disease could be prevented or remedied by administering an alkali treatment (such as sodium bicarbonate). MacNider’s work was the basis for the French and British armies’ medical treatment of soldiers during World War I, saving thousands of lives. In 1973, Patricia Waller led a team of researchers in formulating the concept of graduated driver licensing, a three-stage system designed to improve driving through practical experience.

Since that time, graduated driver’s license programs have been adopted in most states nationwide, making driving safer across our country.

You might be surprised to know that the first HIV/AIDS patient was admitted into UNC Hospitals in 1981. This was a disease no one wanted to talk about, much less study. The average American knew little to nothing about the disease until a decade later, when star basketball player Magic Johnson announced that he was diagnosed with the disease. But it was our star researcher, Mike Cohen, who refused to look away, and with an incredible team, he worked for decades to demonstrate that treatment with antiretroviral agents prevents HIV transmission. UNC-Chapel Hill’s leadership in the study of HIV has saved lives and made this a disease that people can now survive.

Since 1997, one of the largest research awards in our history, MEASURE Evaluation has worked with developing countries to strengthen their public health information systems. A lack of information, particularly in rural areas around the world, means that solutions to some of the most basic health concerns can’t be addressed. MEASURE’s researchers span the globe and give people the information they need to do their jobs and improve health around the world.

I could talk all day about our researchers and we still wouldn’t cover it all.

Carolina’s research enterprise has quadrupled since the late 1990s and doubled in just the last 15 years. Today, we are a global research powerhouse that attracts over $1.2 billion annually to North Carolina in research funding. But our research is not just about the numbers, it’s about the impact that we have on the lives of people around the world.

Our history gives me reason to hope for the future. When we think about the issues in our world today, it’s easy to be discouraged. But I have hope because I have seen what our researchers have accomplished in 229 years. What more can they do in the next 229?

The questions of our world don’t have easy solutions. As Albert Einstein said, “If we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” We are questioning with a purpose, and it takes time, commitment and perseverance. And so today, as we celebrate the founding of our great university, we recognize the impact of that dedication and our aspirations for the future.

We are especially highlighting the work of our undergraduates, partnering with our world-class faculty, on research projects solving environmental challenges locally and around the globe. We will hear from some of them today.

They are the future problem-solvers, the future questioners, the future challengers of the status quo. And not just in the future, they are doing that right now. They give me hope and I am so excited to hear from them today.