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How the inseparable connection was broken

Governance for education is established in the North Carolina Constitution. A bill has been filed to amend this governance structure, replacing the State Board of Education and the elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction with a governor-appointed head of a department of education. Before replacing our current structure, it is worth exploring the initial concept in the 1868 Constitution that provided through governance for an inseparable connection between the public schools and the state university.

In last week’s Thursday Transcript, I described the creation of the “long ballot” in the 1868 Constitution, including the elected position of State Superintendent of Public Instruction. It was clearly done as a way to hold the reins of power in the state. And indeed, Republicans won the full slate of positions in the elections held at the same time the constitution was ratified by the people (Note: In this article, I use “Republicans” and “Conservatives” as the labels were then used – not as they maybe understood today.)

Before replacing our current structure, it is worth exploring the initial concept in the 1868 constitution that provided through governance for an inseparable connection between the public schools and the state university.

This long ballot had a direct impact on public education: the newly-created State Board of Education was comprised solely of this slate of elected state officials, with the Governor serving as chair of the State Board. In this capacity, these officials had considerable authority to shape public schools. But it even goes beyond that. The State Board, in the 1868 constitution, also had considerable control over the state university.

But first, some background. The 1776 Constitution, while brief on the subject, was progressive in at least recognizing a role for a State University. The constitution provided that “All useful Learning shall be duly encouraged and promoted in one or more Universities.”

The State University – the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — was established in 1789 and now is the oldest state university in existence. It educated many of the state leaders of the day. And at the time of the Civil War, this would mean that it was seen as closely aligned to the confederate cause.

Some saw the 1868 Constitutional Convention as an opportunity to change this. One such person was Solomon Pool. He served as an adjunct professor at UNC and was a Methodist minister. His brother was a delegate to the 1868 Constitutional Convention which gave him an opportunity to make his proposal. He wrote to his brother: 

Dear Charley, I transmit herewith a paper on the subject of Education. It may be deemed presumptuous to have put it in the exact form it is “as an article ready prepared for the new State Constitution”…

It has been my purpose, as you will observe to link & blend the interests of the University & of Common Schools. Both are of great importance to the State, but a jealousy has for years existed between them that ought to be broken up. The aristocratic family influence that has controlled the University ought to be crushed, & the institution should be popularized…

Better than have the State University a nursery of treason, to foster & perpetuate the feeling of disloyalty, that its doors be closed forever. But this would be an affliction to the state & wholly unnecessary.

Truly &c,

S. Pool

While we can’t know exactly what transpired afterwards, we know that these sorts of letters were typically referred to the committees in charge of the issue. And certainly we can see some similarities in what became a part of the Constitution. 

First, in language that is quite progressive to the times, the 1868 Constitution required an “inseparable connection” between the public schools and the university.

Second, to operationalize this, the Constitution gave certain authority and duties to the State Board of Education, including the power to elect the trustees for the University Board and to serve as Ex Officio Members of the Board. Most importantly, it constituted the Executive Committee along with three other Trustees. There is no doubt that this structure was poised to give great authority to the State Board on determining the affairs of the university.

This structure was put in place after the Constitution was adopted by the people. Solomon Pool became the first president of the University of North Carolina under the 1868 Constitution. In an effort to  unite North Carolinians, he made overtures to Conservatives by submitting a series of letters to the Sentinel newspaper. In one of these letters, he wrote:

The Constitution provides that the University shall be held to an inseparable connection with the Free Public School system of the State…While we have among us some citizens who will make excellent teachers in the Public Schools, still it will hardly be supposed that we have enough of this class…Must North Carolina always suffer the taunt that she is dependent upon others for instruction?

So there was great optimism – a momentum to move forward. Leaders remained committed to their vision of a better North Carolina. So what happened? Why was this inseparable connection broken?

Rather than a revitalized university, it was instead shutting down. In part, this was simply the economics of the times. Like other state institutions, it had invested in war bonds that were worthless, leaving the university bankrupt. Further, there were few students: the aristocracy wanted nothing to do with this university and others didn’t quite trust the open door. Furthermore, the politics were intense. After all, those who had supported the university as it had been before the Civil War were hardly going to go quietly away.

One of its most ardent supporters was Cornelia Phillips Spencer. She instituted a personal letter writing campaign to the Sentinel. To make it appear that it involved multiple persons, she made arrangements for the postman to pick up her dispatches from different locations in Chapel Hill and Durham. In one of these letters, she wrote about Pool: 

The President is a little formal arrogant prig, without two clear ideas in his brains beyond his own selfish aggrandizement and his own two-penny schemes.-

The faculty – “let them be made to understand unequivocally that North Carolina scorns them and their pretentions to be a University. The whole troop ought to be led to the extreme eastern verge of the state and dismissed into the Atlantic with a harmless but ceremonious kick.

As daunting as all of these factors were in moving forward, the most egregious was the violence and intimidation inflicted on Blacks and black sympathizers by the Ku Klux Klan. It was not a coincidence that the KKK was most active in North Carolina, including in Orange County, in this time period between 1867 and 1870 – when these efforts for change were unfolding. It hit Chapel Hill directly: the head of the KKK – the Grand Dragon – Colonel William L. Saunders, resided in Chapel Hill and had strong ties to the university.

And the result of all of these forces was that the University of North Carolina closed its doors in February of 1871.

Already, at the General Assembly, efforts were being made to return the university to its former self. In the 1870 elections, the Conservatives regained power and one of their first steps was to begin the process of changing the constitutional provisions for the university. And they were successful.

In the 1873 amendments, they removed the inseparable connection to the public schools.

In the 1873 amendments, they removed the inseparable connection to the public schools. This was a part of the “redemption” as Conservatives called it. They then changed the governance. Having taken control of the General Assembly, they gave themselves the power for both selecting the trustees and making rules.

And with these changes in place, the university reopened.

Governance was changed with a new board comprised of Conservatives.

One of the board members served for so long and with distinguished service that a building on campus is named after him – Saunders Hall. Yes, this is Colonel Saunders.

The “inseparable connection” was broken. Could constitutional amendments to the governance of public education fix this now? It at least should be a part of the conversation. And if you are interested in whether UNC should rename Saunders Hall, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees is accepting comments through April 25, 2015 on their website.

Ann McColl

Ann McColl is an attorney and state constitutional scholar.