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Commitment from the dean

In December 1921, The Graduate School’s third dean submitted a now 100-year-old report to the University’s president; it reveals a commitment from the dean to serve graduate students—albeit in a culture and society that reflected the systems and norms of the time. 

The University of North Carolina; The Graduate School bulletin from 1921
The report of the dean from 1921.

Edwin Greenlaw assumed the role of dean in 1920—seventeen years after the formal establishment of the Graduate Department at UNC-Chapel Hill and only two years after the close of World War I. His report reflects on the need for support of our state’s graduate students, including those who were at the forefront of the war and whose graduate research sought to solve the issues the war engendered. 

Critical role in the research enterprise

In the dean’s report, recently rediscovered in The Graduate School’s archives in Bynum Hall, Greenlaw emphasized how graduate students serve our state through research. He spoke of an eagerness for North Carolina to emerge as a leader in research—a goal that could be achieved by increasing financial and teaching support for graduate students. The dean’s keen vision for the future of research at Carolina hinged on the role of graduate students whose research and academic prowess would catapult the University as a top-tier research institution. By incorporating Carolina’s graduate students into the emerging research enterprise, the University could serve our state’s economy, solve complex challenges, and contribute to improving welfare of North Carolinians. 

“If we can maintain this rate of progress in the development of the graduate faculty, the library, and the laboratories, we shall soon be able to take a commanding position among research institutions,” he wrote.  

A responsibility to the state

A black-and-white photo of Edwin Greenlaw
Edwin Greenlaw, former dean of The Graduate School at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Calling research a “proper function” of the University, he emphasized that it creates new knowledge and pushes boundaries on emerging issues. “Such work brings new meaning to the world,” Greenlaw wrote. “The professor in a State University, more than a professor in a private institution, has a responsibility to the state.” Greenlaw wrote. Research should be “alive to the crisis of humanity,” directly referring to the close of the war. One hundred years later, graduate students continue to respond to crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters, and social justice issues. 

The report also emphasizes the importance of graduate students as members of the teaching staff—a critical way in which graduate students continue to serve in fulfilling the University’s mission of teaching, research, and service. “They should be a vital campus influence,” the bulletin reads. “They are, or should be, the connecting link between undergraduates and the faculty. Expense, trouble, time, anything that can help them to realize their possibilities of service, will be returned a hundred fold to the University,” he wrote. 

Expanding access to graduate education

Given the important roles that Greenlaw ascribed to graduate education with regard to its impact on research and the state, it is probably not surprising that he also hinted at a need to broaden access to graduate education. In the publication, Greenlaw also called for increasing funding to support graduate education, partly as a pathway for women to pursue higher education.  

“It is very necessary that our fund for fellowships and scholarships be materially increased,” Greenlaw wrote. “For one thing, there are no fellowships available for women. There are relatively few women in the Graduate School, but they do work of excellent quality, and we expect their number to increase.” 

One hundred years ago, however, people from a variety of diverse backgrounds—including those from marginalized race and ethnicities, genders, and others—faced significant barriers to graduate education. While the publication makes mention of the emerging role of women, it omits discussion about minority groups and a need to increase access to graduate education at the University.  

According to the Virtual Museum of University History, created in 2006 with support of the Office of the Chancellor, the University admitted its first Black graduate and professional students in 1951. It would be 1964 before William Darity became the first African American Ph.D. recipient awarded a graduate degree. He and many others played pivotal roles shaping policies and affecting change. Their stories are examples of the challenges omitted in Greenlaw’s report. 

Over the ensuing decades, The Graduate School’s deans have committed to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion by establishing several initiatives, including a Diversity and Student Success program which supports graduate students who come from a variety of backgrounds and life experience. In 2020, The Graduate School began a five-year pilot program to eliminate the GRE, often seen as a barrier in the pursuit of graduate education. 

Recently, The Graduate School received the 2020 ETS/CGS Award for Innovation in Promoting Success in Graduate Education: From Admission through Completion. This award will expand our efforts to focus on both addressing inequities that exist in some graduate programs and preparing diverse graduate students thrive in programs where those inequities persist.

Dean of The Graduate School, Suzanne Barbour, said The Graduate School’s commitment to the University’s tripartite mission of teaching, research, and service, is unwavering. The Graduate School, she said, strives to serve as a model for graduate education in our state and beyond—as it did 100 years ago. 

“In reading this bulletin, there are so many themes that still ring true,” she said. “We must continue to support graduate students in a holistic way so they can continue to be best prepared for the future, including for the future of work. The graduate student experience and career trajectories are drastically different from those one hundred years ago. But our longstanding and commitment to graduate students—to their academic preparation, to their mental health, well-being, and more—remains.” 

1921 to today

In 1921, The Graduate School enrolled 163 students from 14 states. In 2021, The Graduate School enrolled more than 6,000 students in more than 160 degree-offering programs; 14 percent of graduate students are international students.  

About Edwin Greenlaw

Edwin Greenlaw, an expert in Medieval and Renaissance literature, came to Carolina in 1913. The 1920s signaled the debut of a new age for American universities, including for Carolina. Under Greenlaw’s leadership, he transformed and bolstered graduate education at Carolina, which resulted in a reorganization of The Graduate School. He also implemented several practical administrative measures, attracted the attention of the Association of American Universities (AAU), which elected Carolina to its ranks in 1922. 


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