Celebrating a Century of Excellence: The University of North Carolina Press Turns 100, Part Three

2022 marks the one hundred year anniversary of the founding of the University of North Carolina Press.

This third blog post of a series of five is taken from an essay on the history of UNC Press written by Advancement Council member the Rev. David C. (Kirk) Brown, first delivered to the Pen and Plate Club of Asheville.

Read parts one, two, four, and five

A series of inspired and progressive presidents had helped shape a new vision of what the University of North Carolina could and should be. Among them was one of the most beloved and charismatic presidents, Edward Kidder Graham (1914-18). Graham had already established himself as one of the most popular professors on campus, then as the Dean, so his selection as president was hailed by all. Under his leadership, the University for the first time began to appreciate its calling to be the “university for all the people” in the state. North Carolinians began to take pride in their university. Graham, a proponent of the New South, saw the role of the University as lifting North Carolina to a new level of excellence. But just as he was finding his stride, when all seemed to be going well, suddenly he died, a victim of the 1918 Influenza pandemic.

Enter Harry Woodburn Chase, appointed president in 1919. He had come to the university in 1910, joining the Education department. His vision for UNC carried beyond Graham’s vision for UNC as the university of the state; now he asked that it be seen as the university for the South. Chase was ready to put into the past the dreary post Civil War era and the devastation of World War I. In his mind the New South had arrived, and it needed a university up to the challenge of preparing students for the new reality. On the one hand he was able to build upon the wave of optimism ushered in by his predecessor, Graham. On the other, postwar growth drove home new challenges and opportunities: in just one year, the first of his presidency, the student body grew by 60%. Graduate school programs were springing up and expanding rapidly. Yet the facilities and faculty were woefully strained. In the fall of 1919, in his first Opening Day address to the students, he articulated the challenge to the University:

Since the end of the war you have been living in a world which has not found itself, in a world which is as confused as the world of the last generation was orderly. Your world—the world you are getting your education in, the world you will soon have to face—is in an intellectual and moral ferment. Ideas and ideals are in flux, and your minds are open to the good and evil in it all….Bolshevism and industrial unrest, and moral confusion, and red radicalism, and city slums, are just as truly creations of modern civilization as are the achievements of science, or good roads, or public schools….The march of events will be too swift, the situation too critical, for drifting and temporizing.

In order to build a first-rate university, Chase set out to attract a first-rate faculty. Top on his list was Howard Odum, longtime friend and colleague, whom he now invited to join him in developing a Department of Sociology at UNC. The two had met as fellow students at Clark University, where both were pursuing their study of psychology. Clark had only recently been founded, calling itself the first graduate school-only research university. Perhaps this was the model for what the University of North Carolina could become.

Mid- 20th century UNC Press colophon

And so in 1922, there was a lot of excitement in the air. In addition to Chase and Odum, who brought with them a vision of making UNC into a research university of renown, the other scholars present also were eager to put their university on the map. Establishing the first university press in the South would be a huge step forward. Notes from those early meetings in 1922 reveal their reasons: it was time for the University of North Carolina to claim its place as a leading research university—not only regionally, but nationally. It was time to consolidate the many disparate publishing efforts already being undertaken—bulletins, catalogs, journals of various departments. It was time to start keeping in house manuscripts which were otherwise being published elsewhere, and to present them in the most attractive design. And it was high time to give North Carolina and the southern region a voice in publishing. In reading minutes from the earliest meetings, one cannot escape the sense of surprise that UNC suddenly and unexpectedly found itself poised for excellence:

In recent years the University has become, without a special consciousness of the fact, a great publishing organization…The method of the University is casual and haphazard, without a business organization. The fundamental need, therefore, is to bring into clear-cut organization the publishing activity of an institution which is outstanding among American universities for what it has done despite handicaps.

And as they noted, “it would be an immense advantage to the prestige of our University were we able to produce these books here.” But particularly important in their deliberations was the awareness that such a press would serve the South at large:

Our unique advantage is in our geographical situation as an intellectual center in a region ripe for expansion in things of the mind….Part of the function of a great University in a region that is now passing with unimaginable rapidity from poverty to immense wealth is to see that the intellectual and spiritual interests do not suffer from the pressure of material things. A University Press would be a sturdy force in making our progress a well-rounded progress, not a matter only of bank and trade balances.

Never mind that no one present had any real publishing experience. The time was ripe to launch the University of North Carolina Press. As to its organization, the Press would be incorporated as a non-stock corporation, the founders comprising the first board of governors. It would be at once independent of the University and yet very much allied with the University’s mission. That sense of independence would prove ingenious in the years to come: should the Press take on delicate or politically risky publications, the University could distance itself, thus allowing the Press the freedom it needed to maintain integrity.

Even from the outset it is striking how bold and self-aware the founders were.

The University is in a strategic position for the development of such an enterprise. The Yale and Harvard Presses come into direct competition with the great Boston and New York publishers; there is no special differentiation. A University Press in Indiana or Illinois or Wisconsin has harder competition to meet and less reason for existence. But the South is a virgin field. The University Press of Sewanee is the only rival, and it has neither the funds nor the faculty to enable it to cover the field as completely as would be possible here.

Having thus determined that they would found the Press, it was now time to learn just what that meant practically.

The Rev. David C. (Kirk) Brown is the recently retired chaplain of Christ School. Kirk received his A.B. from Davidson College, his M.A. from the University of Virginia, and his M.Div. from Virginia Theological Seminary. He is a life-long educator. Having taught German and English for 12 years at Virginia Episcopal School, he then attended seminary and was ordained an Episcopal priest. After serving three years at St. John’s Church in Roanoke, VA, he returned to school work, serving 24 years as Chaplain at Christ School and teaching religion. Kirk lives with his wife, Shelley, on a farm in Fletcher, NC.