HILL: “What is it that should bind us to this place as no other?”

View of the main quad area at UNC Chapel Hill.

On Oct. 12, 1993, CBS “On The Road” host and UNC alum, Charles Kuralt delivered a fawning paean to the liberalism of UNC-Chapel Hill on its 200th anniversary. 

Many UNC leaders and alums view Chapel Hill primarily as a liberal intellectual sanctuary city where their political views can be advanced and impressed upon young minds without challenge.  The primary mission of any university is not to indoctrinate students into any particular political philosophy or worldview but to educate young minds in a place where vigorous argumentation and disputation can occur in a free academic environment. 

Much of Kuralt’s iconic speech below is essentially verbatim with quotation marks. A person can almost hear his dulcet baritone voice intoning “What is it that binds us to this place?” as if watching a commercial for Carolina during a Tar Heel basketball game.  

The rest is what many people wish Mr. Kuralt, or any UNC president, chancellor or faculty for that matter, would say about the crucial mission of UNC-Chapel Hill and public higher education in North Carolina then and now: 

“I speak for all who could not afford to go to Duke, and would not have, even if we could have afforded it. We are Tar Heels-born and Tar Heels-bred. We are glad to be alive on the 200th anniversary of the establishment of public higher education in the New World. And immeasurably proud that this occurred on Oct. 12, 1783 here on the crest of New Hope Chapel…hill. 

What is it that should bind us to this place as no other? It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls. Or the crisp October nights or the memory of dogwoods blooming. Our loyalty is not only to William Richardson Davie, though we are proud of what he did 200 years ago. Not even to Dean Smith, though we are proud of what he did last March. 

No, our love for this place is based on the fact that it is, as it was meant to be, the University of the people.” 

Our mission should have been what Thomas Jefferson would say about The University in Charlottesville, Virginia he founded 37 years later: ‘This institution (is) based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.’ 

In 1868, the state constitution was amended to say the ‘General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.’ 

With such benevolent foresight, The University of The People became affordable to every Tar Heel.  The University also became 100% accountable to every taxpayer in the state, regardless of their political affiliation or any other factor, who subsidizes such affordable education for each student. 

“My family’s experience of the University may be much like your family’s experience. They came to Chapel Hill by train in those hard depression years of the 1930s carrying little money but much hope for the future. 

They hired a man with a mule and wagon to transport one trunk of belongings from Carrboro station to the campus” where they had but one goal: to absorb as much knowledge as humanly possible over the next four years and then go make the world a better place for them and everyone around them. 

Great professors and administration officials at UNC over time would echo Jefferson when he said: ‘I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man’° as they helped every student learn to look at facts objectively; think critically and make decisions ethically. 

That is the best any of us can hope and pray for from any institution of higher education. 

“Here as students, we found something in the air. A kind of generosity, a certain tolerance, a disposition toward freedom of action and inquiry that has made Chapel Hill, for thousands of us, a moral and intellectual center of the world. This was the atmosphere, the classically liberal and liberating air of Chapel Hill.  

It is the air we breathe tonight.  

And so on and on we might hope through the life of the University that freedom and toleration will be lived. Two hundred years to the day since the founding of the first state university, we can read again the words on its seal…light and liberty, and say that the University of North Carolina has lived by those two short noble words and say that in all the American story, there is no other place like this.”