The UNC System

Written By Jane Shaw Stroup

Today, the University of North Carolina System consists of 17 separate campuses located throughout the state. It is governed by a Board of Governors elected by the General Assembly. It even includes two special high schools. But the university began with just one campus, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This entry will introduce the history of the UNC system as a whole, and future entries will describe the changes that expanded the university to its present 17 campuses.

The university was chartered (that is, given permission to operate) by the state of North Carolina in 1789, and the university welcomed its first student in 1795. It was the first public university in the colonies—and therefore in the entire United States. At that time, there were nine private universities in the colonies, such as Harvard (founded in 1636) and William and Mary (founded in 1693), but no publicly owned ones.[1]

The history of the University of North Carolina actually goes back even farther, to 1776, the year that the American colonies declared their independence from the British. Once the colonies became independent, each state wrote its own constitution, a document that laid out the basic laws for how the state would be governed.

North Carolina’s constitution had a provision that not all state constitutions had. It said that there would be a public school system, including a university. North Carolina borrowed its statement almost entirely from Pennsylvania’s constitution, which had been ratified a few months earlier. North Carolina’s statement said:

“That a school or schools shall be established by the Legislature, for the convenient instruction of youth, with such salaries to the masters, paid by the public, as may enable them to instruct at low prices; and all useful learning shall be duly encouraged, and promoted, in one or more universities.”[2]

In other words, the university would have some public financial support, although the details were not given.

In 1776, however, the new states were fighting a difficult war that did not end formally until 1783, so there wasn’t much interest in creating a university. Then, in 1784, an effort was made to obtain a charter for the university. But North Carolina’s General Assembly rejected the plan.

Why? For one thing, the state was “still dealing with financial hardships brought on by the war,” one historian, Erika Lindemann, says. But Lindemann offers another reason as well. Many of those who wanted the university were well-educated and politically powerful owners of plantations in eastern North Carolina. In contrast, many farmers and other residents of the central and western parts of the state did not have formal schooling, and some weren’t able to read or write. Their children would not be prepared for college-level work. They worried that the aristocratic landowners in the east would become even more powerful with a university.[3]

In 1789, however, thanks in large part to the efforts of William Richardson Davie, the General Assembly approved a charter for the University of North Carolina. Davie had attended Princeton University (at the time called the College of New Jersey). He persuaded reluctant General Assembly members that the future security and prosperity of the state depended on having educated people. In addition to his persuasion, he “helped select the Chapel Hill location, recruit faculty, and promote the adoption of an updated curriculum.”[4] (It was an updated curriculum because the university would teach science and practical arts in addition to the classics.)

One of the first acts of the university’s trustees was to come up with a seal, which the university used until 1895. It is a picture of Apollo, the Greek god of eloquence (which means beautiful and persuasive language) and his symbol, a rising sun, to symbolize the “dawn of higher education in our state.”[5]

Finding a place for the school and finding funds to support it were big tasks. The state legislature didn’t offer any tax money. Instead, it gave the university the right to obtain (and then sell) land or other property that was owed to the state. The property owner might have failed to pay taxes or might have died without an heir. But these were hard to get—a sheriff might have to go out and try to obtain the property.  So citizens of North Carolina began to donate funds instead.

In 1791 or 1792, the General Assembly came up with a loan of $10,000.[6]

Chapel Hill (sometimes called the Hill of New Hope Chapel because it was a hill with an abandoned chapel on it) was chosen as the university’s location. It was in the center of the state, near several major roads. (Most roads were not very good at the time and there were no railroads.) Especially important was the fact that a number of landowners in the area were willing to donate land for the university.

The university, which accepted only young men, opened in early 1795.  It had one professor, David Ker, the “presiding professor.” He hired one tutor. Professor Ker lectured on such topics as the traditional ones: Greek and Latin classics, mathematics, and metaphysics (philosophy and religion). But he also taught more practical and scientific subjects, including chemistry, botany, zoology, and principles of agriculture.

In the first year, seventy-four students enrolled. Not all were qualified, so the university quickly set up a preparatory school, which lasted until 1819. (By that time there were enough schools nearby to provide qualified college applicants.)[7] In any case, by the end of 1795, the University of North Carolina was off to a good start.