Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Fervor on Chapel Hill

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Fervor on Chapel Hill

Article excerpt

Although the University of North Carolina received the nation's first public matriculate in 1795, following earlier yearnings of Presbyterian schoolmasters, this great Southern state university evolved in the twentieth century. It emerged under a social scientist, Harry W. Chase, a native of Massachusetts, a Republican, a Congregationalist, who gained such acclaim as Chapel Hill's tenth president, 1919l-1930, that he moved on to head the University of Illinois and New York University.

If generous funding is essential to a university's ascendancy and assurance against decline, purpose flows from inspired stewardship. Until Chase's time the university's public support had lagged, owing to the influence of private sectarian colleges (Davidson, Duke, Wake Forest). The university closed for five years in 1871 for lack of funds, and during this interval lost its agricultural mission when a movement was begun to found in 1877 what is now North Carolina State University at Raleigh. A half-century later, opposition to social initiatives surfaced when Presbyterians and evangelical revivalists put Chase to a test before the 1925 general assembly during debate over an antievolution resolution. Chase stood up for academic freedom. He did not care, he said to lawmakers, to preside over a university that did not stand for something other than appropriations. The move toward regression was defeated with the help of a young legislator, Samuel J. Ervin, Jr., who termed the proposal one of no purpose except to absolve monkeys of their responsibility for the human race.

Chase's vision had collided with fundamentalist astigmatism. Upon his elevation to the presidency from the deanship of the Liberal Arts College he set about to implement what he and other scholars had been urging: plans for a graduate school; creation of an engineering school; further strides in psychology (Chase's field), commerce, music, and journalism (Gerald Johnson headed the journalism department, 1924-1926); reorganization of the education school; establishment of a department of sociology that spawned the school of public welfare and the Institute for Research in Social Science. Chase recruited able scholars from other universities: Harvard, the Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Cincinnati, Emory.

Emory's loss, a gain for the social science of sociology, the South, and Chapel Hill, created turmoil in a state that was experiencing a revival of anti-intellectualism. Chase's elevation to the presidency of a Southern state university amazes in retrospect, for other state universities were choosing either their own or other Southerners to serve as president. Chase's selection of Emory's Liberal Arts dean to found a department of sociology astounds. Although Howard Washington Odum was overqualified for the task, Chase would have known him to be the man most likely to cause trouble in 1920s North Carolina even if he was the ideal man to be allowed, unfettered, to do sociology in the South. At Emory, Odum had been bridled by President Warren A. Candler, a Methodist bishop. "Odum," Candler said, "wanted to build a university overnight and build it his own way."(2) Was a knowing Chase defying North Carolina's vocal nativists? Or was a naive intellectual Yankee choosing the best man unawares? There seems more to ponder here than William Snider affords in a balanced and insightful narrative history. Chase was walking on water, flirting with martyrdom. He and Odum chanced disaster, placed Chapel Hill in academia's annals as a courageous university, created a historical moment to be celebrated.

This remarkable achievement in sociology is not cited to suggest that Odum dominates a great university's history. As Snider shows, Chapel Hill under Chase began to excel in almost all its academic and supporting endeavors. Odum, however, serves to illustrate what can be done when caution is eschewed in the face of need and opportunity. Difficult it is when considering Chapel Hill's history not to to let the Odum case symbolize the advent of a great institution under circumstances not ideal. …

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