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BIG CITY: A call for a champion for North Carolina

Kirk Ross

Dear Carolina,

Congratulations on the start of a new semester. What’s it been now, 225, 226 years? You’re looking good these days. Has anyone told you that? Lots of new buildings and equipment and some amazing research going on. Congrats on all that, too.

Anyway, I don’t know if you’ve had time to check the news lately, but this state is hurting something fierce and, well, we could really use your help again. You are, after all, the university of the people.

The people need you.

Ten percent of the state’s workforce — nearly a half-million people – are unemployed. Many, many more are underemployed or have dropped off the rolls altogether. The manufacturing economy that helped build this state and helped build you has collapsed. The cities, towns and little crossroads that have sent you their best and brightest for more than two centuries don’t have enough work to go around. Our kids are looking elsewhere to make their lives and fortunes. It’s the saddest thing.

For the people who really need you, the sick and destitute, life is worse now than it’s been in a long time. Even right at your doorstep, the spiral of poverty has drawn so many people into its spin. During those incredible years when the Research Triangle became a seemingly unstoppable engine of the economy, who would have imagined its host communities would be struggling so just a couple of decades later.

Elsewhere in this state, there are places far worse off — places with shameful poverty and infant mortality rates.

Think of them when you’re marveling over those new energy-efficient offices, wonderfully refurbished dorms and high-tech classrooms. Think of them, not because any of us begrudge you one bit of the fine institution you’ve become or quality education you have to offer, but because we don’t.

People of this state have been willing to give their all for you. Those new buildings and classrooms might bear the name of a donor and patron, but for most of the 90 or so projects constructed in the last decade it was the people of North Carolina who came through for you. Of the $3.1 billion in bonds we passed in 2000, nearly a third went to you, Carolina. Almost $1 billion. The vote wasn’t even close. That’s because you’re important to us, a point of pride, the first state university and a damn good one. You are world-renowned, and yet through the years you’ve seldom lost sight of where you come from or forgotten that it is the people of North Carolina, all of us, who have been your unflinching partners. Remember that. Remember us.

Carolina, you are capable of great things. We’ve seen it. We’ve seen you put this state on your back and carry it into modernity. We’ve seen you help reform and transform government and industry. We’ve seen you right wrongs and make history.

And we need you, again, to be great — to help in any way you can to make this state whole. To get on the right track and moving forward again, we need your ideas, inspiration and innovation.

Most of all, we need action. We are faced with an economic crisis at a time when our politics are polarized to the point of near-paralysis. There are few if any institutions in this state capable of bringing to bear on the problem the energy and creativity it needs and almost none, save the university, that has the clout to get something done.

Carolina, it is time to roll up your sleeves and be prepared to get your trousers dirty. This people of this state need a champion.

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