Eric Johnson: #CarolinaLove

What do you value/love about Carolina?

My love for Carolina is in the same category as my love for America: a set of impossibly idealistic aspirations, rarely achieved but always worth striving toward. I think it’s an absolute miracle that a deeply impoverished southern state built this place, sustained it for two centuries, and continues to support it today. It’s miraculous that any society has managed to build and celebrate institutions purpose-built to question orthodoxy and encourage free thinking. “There is a vast educational culture in this country, unlike anything else in the world,” writes Marilynne Robinson. “It emerged from a glorious sense of the possible and explored and enhanced the possible through the spread of learning.”

What do you value/love that?

That’s what I feel when I walk across campus at Carolina — a glorious sense of the possible. Public universities, Robinson says, ”are a tribute and an invitation to the young, who can and should make the world new, out of the unmapped and unbounded resource of their minds.” That invitation is still very much open, and not just to the young.

What Does It Mean to Love Carolina?

By Mimi Chapman

“He loves Carolina.”  “She really loves Carolina.” “Of course, they love Carolina.” Referencing generous alums, trusted advisors, sports coaches, legislators, recent graduates, trustees’ past and present, the “loving Carolina” moniker is applied to so many. Everyone it seems “loves Carolina.”  I don’t doubt it, but such catch phrases are often a kind of code. At this moment in the University’s history when there is so much right, so much still to do, within a governance structure that is fraught, “loving Carolina” is a code worth dissecting.

Having moved across the country years ago, I am not deeply connected to my Texas undergraduate campus. But if someone were to ask me if I loved the place, if I had a meaningful psychological connection to it, I would probably say yes.  I had professors that challenged me, read transformational books, and had important experiences that set me on my professional path. What’s more, I love who I was during my college days enthusiastic and curious about most everything, football games and formals, plays and poetry, studying abroad, new techniques in the darkroom, and chasing the moon down rural country lanes with the top down. That place gave me those memories and so I love it. But I know next to nothing about the day-to-day reality of that campus now, what it takes to run it, what the tensions are among students, faculty, and the administration.  My love is based solely in memory. 

That is not to say all Carolina alums “love Carolina” because of their memories. Some can see their time in Chapel Hill as part of a long-running river that changes the landscape and is changed by that landscape in return. Others devote time and treasure to the place in hopes that they can preserve or return the campus to some former version of itself.  Others “love Carolina” because it is struggling with hard historical questions and working to live up to ideals of equity and inclusion. Some “love Carolina” for more specific reasons. UNC Health Care saved life or limb. A campus discovery or innovation added value to their business. Maybe their community was helped by the incredible state-wide work in which many of our schools engage. Perhaps they’ve become used to having their favorite artists – Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Joshua Bell, or Yo Yo Ma – routinely show up at Carolina Performing Arts. Faculty love Carolina’s “low stone walls” culture that leads to robust cross disciplinarity, committed students, prize winning colleagues.  In some ways, we all love Carolina, but, perhaps we love different Carolinas and not all loves have room for everything that happens on our campus.  

When I go beyond the “loving Carolina” code, I believe that I am being told to trust people who “love Carolina” without question. “Loving Carolina” protects people from critique whether their decision-making is transparent or opaque, deceptive, or straight-forward, wise or misguided. But in a culture of diverse interests and conflicting values, trust based on handshakes and coded language is failing. It’s time to look under the hood.  A love for a winning sports team may be rooted in values like loyalty and submitting one’s desires for the good of the team. A love for a faculty fellowship program may be more about scholarship that thrives through autonomy and solitude. Gratitude, second chances, repaying a priceless debt characterizes a Carolina love rooted in care at UNC Hospitals. Some students love the Carolina of the blue cup and others love the fight for justice. There are Carolina parents who are astounded by the opportunities that come to their children who choose this campus. Some, like me, love all of it and others only part.

This Valentine’s day it’s time to go beyond the platitudes and the coded language. Let’s show that we love Carolina by being honest with ourselves and others about what we value about this place. And let’s talk about it. Such a dialogue could provide an opportunity to bring our governing boards, faculty, staff, students, and administration into more productive dialogue and alignment.