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What is an Urban Research University

by Phil Dubois

December 7,2008

Under the leadership of President Erskine Bowles, the University of North Carolina (UNC) system has been engaged in a comprehensive planning effort called UNC Tomorrow.   UNC Tomorrow will help determine how the seventeen institutions that comprise the system, including UNC Charlotte, will provide education, research, scholarship, and public service in the 21st Century, as well as meet the needs of North Carolina through the year 2020.

UNC Charlotte has now entered the second phase of this effort. We are revising our comprehensive Campus Academic Plan, including the following proposed updated Mission Statement:

UNC Charlotte is North Carolina’s urban research university. It leverages its location in the state’s largest and most vibrant city to offer internationally competitive programs of research and creative activity, exemplary undergraduate and graduate educational opportunities through the doctoral level, and a focused set of community engagement initiatives. UNC Charlotte maintains a particular commitment to addressing the cultural, economic, educational, environmental, health, and social needs of the greater Charlotte region.

When the University leadership developed this statement, we sought to emphasize the unique status of UNC Charlotte as an urban research university. No other institution in the UNC system is able to lay claim to being the state’s urban research university; no institution in the UNC system possesses such ready access to the unique resource that is Charlotte.

Great cities are the ideal locations for great universities. Because higher education and the larger purposes of American society are inextricably intertwined, urban universities play a critical role in the nation’s cities. They are often the catalysts for partnerships among individuals and organizations that seek to improve urban life.

UNC Charlotte has always been, and will continue to be, critical to Charlotte’s higher education supply chain. Thirty-seven percent of our students hail from Mecklenburg County. More than half of our alumni live in the greater Charlotte metropolitan region. As we grow to serve an anticipated 35,000 students by the year 2020, thereby reflecting the continuing expansive growth of our region, we can expect continuing demands for UNC Charlotte to help produce the kind of highly educated workforce that draws new investment and opportunities. We stand ready to do that, with more than 3,300 baccalaureate and 1,000 master’s degrees awarded annually, and nearly 800 Ph.D. students now enrolled in the 18 doctoral programs we offer currently (with four additional programs awaiting approval).

Without doubt, our location is integral to our mission of research, creative activity, teaching and community engagement. In tandem with the anticipated light rail line to North Charlotte, the new Center City classroom building, for which we will break ground in February, represents a major step in enhancing the connection between the city and the University. The Center City Building will be the first urban building constructed in the UNC system. Located at Ninth and Brevard streets in the heart of Charlotte, Center City will be home to The Belk College of Business graduate programs and a variety of other graduate, professional, and continuing education programs. The iconic, 11-story structure will become an important point of access into UNC Charlotte for the greater Charlotte community.

The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute presents a prime example of the marriage between service and research. The Institute provides a range of services to the region and its citizens, including technical assistance and training related to operations and data management, public opinion surveys, land-use and natural resources consulting, economic development research, and community planning.

The idea of the urban research university is hardly new. When the modern research university and the academic disciplines emerged in America in the late 19th Century, they developed mostly in major cities, and their leaders insisted that their urban location was crucial to their success. Nicholas Murray Butler, who transformed Columbia from a traditional college into a modern university, wrote that “there is no doubt whatsoever as to the superiority of the city’s opportunities and environment as a place of graduate, professional and technical study.” For our region’s only research university (public or private), this statement rings more true today than ever.

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