Seven alumni, seven decades: Lessons from a reunion of former UNC–Chapel Hill student body presidents
Written by Cate Miller ’25 of the Scholar Media Team
When you get a group of Morehead-Cains in a room, you’re bound to have an interesting conversation. This past spring, the Foundation invited back to campus alumni who had at least one shared experience as scholars: serving the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as student body president.
Seven alumni from seven decades, beginning with the class of 1960 to the class of 2020, came together for a weekend reunion to commemorate their service, exchange memories, and share wisdom.
On February 11, the former student body presidents delivered a panel discussion for current scholars, moderated by current UNC–Chapel Hill student body president Teddy Vann. The event included Charlie Gray ’60, Bill Moss ’78, Bryan Hassel ’88, Jim Copland ’94, James Allred ’07, Hogan Medlin ’11, and Ashton Martin ’20.
Below is an abbreviated version of the event.
*Answers have been edited for brevity.
Teddy: Looking back on your term, what prepared you most for that experience?
I was treasurer of the student body, so I was familiar with how it worked, but there were so many things that happened during that period of time that I wasn’t exactly ready for.
They just had the sit-down strikes over in Greensboro. Martin Luther King Jr. came, and we had dinner with him. I don’t think anything really prepared me for that particular event, but I got through it.
I was head of what was then called the “media board.” It was like the board of directors for all the media on campus, including the Daily Tar Heel. So, I mean, it was all set up very differently. But in that role, I had a lot of involvement with various elements of student government and worked very closely with my predecessor. But spending time in student government was the main thing that so-called prepared me.
In a lot of ways, you can’t be prepared because when you become student body president, you’re suddenly on the board of trustees, and you have to deal with trustees. You’re dealing with faculty and administration in a manner that at least I had never experienced before, and you’re still dealing with student issues. And so, trying to get some feel for the lay of the land and the different constituencies you deal with was a challenge.
Activism was a great preparation for government because government is really a misnomer. In student government, you don’t govern anything. You don’t have any real formal power over the University, for sure. And so, it turns out that your impact is really going to be through activism, through working influence that is not formal authority. Turns out that’s the way life is, too, in trying to move through the world and change things. You can’t really control much. How can you influence, and what are all the different levers you can pull that aren’t formal power?
In high school, I was used to arguing in the state supreme court building, so I was used to being on the spot and in front of powerful people. Forget about the election, in terms of actually being in the job, I think that was important when I got here.
Part of the role is just getting a sense of what’s going on and what needs improvement, facilitation, or help. Figuring out what student government does best is not necessarily about creating some initiatives as much as it’s supporting the initiatives and creations of the student body. We were trying to figure out what this was and what students needed to bridge that gap.
In the 2000s, there was a shift from student government being about advocacy and Raleigh all the time to more about student organizations and supporting them and nurturing that community. My platform? I didn’t build it. I tapped experts in different areas of campus life to appoint them to be responsible for going to the student organizations and building that network. So, by the time we had a campaign, we were two-hundred-plus people strong who helped build an inclusive platform.
I didn’t think I would run until towards the end. I had been in student government since I was a first-year student, but I was pretty content being a policy person. I was going to stay on the committees and do all that. And then, circumstances led to some people encouraging me to run.
But there was a lot of instability in student government that year. We were in the second year of the Silent Sam crisis. Crisis, I guess, is a good word for it. There was a lot of distrust in student government from people who felt like it wasn’t doing anything or people who were doing it for their resumes and just moving on. And I had to take that on and really listen to the students first before taking on these policy positions.
Teddy: What would you define as your big ‘fire,’ the big problem during your term of student government, and how did you put that fire out?
When Silent Sam came down, we thought that might be the end of it, that we could get rid of the statue, and it wouldn’t be on campus anymore. But sometime in the early 2000s, the legislature decided that any statue or monument on public ground (and UNC–Chapel Hill is public property) must be moved to a museum. You can’t just get rid of it.
I’m not exactly sure what the rationale was for that, but it made it very complicated because Silent Sam was a gift from the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the early 1900s. The question was, it’s a gift, so who does it belong to? Who has the right to move it? Where can it go? And so, there was a whole year and a half of the Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors sort of secretly trying to come up with a plan for where Silent Sam would go.
There was a big fight among the trustees about Greek life, which I think has continued, but we had some unfortunate incidents of deaths in fraternities from overconsumption of alcohol and drugs. There was a huge push from some trustees to move all rush to the spring. No first-year student could enter Greek life in their fall semester. That was a big fight. Twenty percent of campus is in Greek life, so the other eighty percent didn’t have an opinion on that. So, how do you, as a student body president, evaluate what the answer is there, right? We turned to a scientific study, so that was one thing.
That year was also when the academic scandal broke out with the athletic program. Now, that roiled the University for years to come, but it broke during that year. There was a lot of the administration coming to me and trying to ask how the students could respond to this, and them wanting to coordinate with me, and me realizing that that felt political. I thought, let me hear them out, hear what they want from me, but what’s the correct response here for the sake of our academic integrity as a University? We all want our degrees to mean something, right? And that was at risk in the public media.
The dominant issue on campus, which I inherited, was the freestanding Black Cultural Center, now the Sonja Haynes Stone Center. Sonja Haynes Stone was a beloved professor who died way too young in August, going into my sophomore year. And students wanted to rename the existing Black Cultural Center . . . then convert it to a freestanding center on campus.
Paul Hardin, who was the chancellor at the time, came out in opposition to this. Paul had marched forward and supported integration. In his mind, this was going in the wrong direction, like we don’t want to separate Black cultures. And it blew up really big in the spring of my sophomore year, and there were protests at South Building. They draped a big banner across South Building that said, “Harden’s Plantation.” In the fall of my junior year, the students marched to their house and shined flashlights in it. So, there was a bunch of activism around this, and it became a big national news story.
There was a lot of student activism about the Iraq War. This was in 2006 . . . and led to a lot of student activist responses. There were also a lot of questions about how we would integrate veterans into campus, and we were having people returning from the war and coming to these students on campus and what their role was. It felt like the seeds of conversations I’ve seen continue on today. There were discussions about people who favored the war and veterans feeling like their voices were being shut down on campus and they weren’t being heard.
It felt like a sub-current of embers that would flame up in various ways, and the sub-current was the global war on terror and the ways that it touched the campus. A week before my inauguration, right as we were undergoing the transition, a student here who—inspired but probably not connected to Middle East extremism—decided to rent a fairly heavy SUV and drive through the pit. And that was the day I learned that the student body president sits on the emergency response committee. But there was still a climate of suspicion about what UNC’s response would be, and its position.
The anti-apartheid movement. There was a huge movement of students that had been going on for years to get the University to stop investing its money in companies that were doing business in South Africa. There was a ton of negotiation to be done with the administration about the protests and the arrests and the shanty town that was built on campus to be a visual representation of what was going on in South Africa. Someone had to be the one to work that out with the administration to make sure that the protest could continue, that the shanty town could be left for a good period of time.
I was on campus from 1974 to 1978, and when I got here, “hippy-ism” was still evident and fading fast. And when I graduated, Ronald Reagan was about to be elected president. So, there was a real swing in the nation and culturally. And when you talk about student activism, it’s hard to overstate. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, we had a war in Vietnam. We had a lot of racial tension.
But the war in Vietnam included something almost impossible to describe to people who were not around during that time. I was a child growing up in it, so I was at least alive and somewhat aware of this. With the draft, you had the possibility of having an older brother at our age who got picked out of your home and sent to Vietnam facing the prospect of dying. And so the urgency and the level of student activism, fighting against that, it’s hard to overstate.
The campus had changed dramatically over those ten years because the University went to gender-neutral admissions. By the time I graduated, more girls were being admitted, and that trend would continue. So there was a lot of change in terms of the feel of the campus.
Teddy: What was communication like, from your perspective, with the difference in technology and the work you had to do in student government and college?
As far as news, the printed Daily Tar Heel was the only game in town. There were other newspapers and things, but as far as news, that was it. It made it easier for us. I had a goal to have something in the Daily Tar Heel every day about something we were doing in the student government, just so it would be a constant. That created a focal point. But it was every day that there was a certain time during which you had to convince someone on the Tar Heel staff to write an article about something. And that was easy to focus on. I can’t imagine what that would be like today with so many different news sources and no finite deadlines. Forget email; we had none of that. But even the media situation was a lot easier, I think, for us to handle because it was so focused. We didn’t have access to other media. If we couldn’t convince the Daily Tar Heel to run a story that day, it wasn’t like we could find some other way to get the word out. That was a really different time.
All the communication was the Daily Tar Heel. Never heard of the internet, emails, telephones . . . you would type using a manual typewriter and if you hit the wrong key, you have to put that white tape over the paper and type it out again. You wouldn’t believe even when I started practicing law, it was the same way. The technology that’s happened that you folks are enjoying you wouldn’t believe it. It makes your life so much easier. I just say I just wish I had everything that you all have now back in 1960. It would have made my life a whole lot easier.”
Teddy: What was your favorite aspect of being student body president?
You’re a minor celebrity of sorts. You touch a lot of people directly or indirectly. You get to know a lot of people. You hear and see many things that you would not otherwise have heard or seen. It’s a unique experience and you have a lot of people who work with you, but you’re the only one. I mean it really is like the center of a wheel with the spokes going out, and it’s challenging because as I look back on my time, there are some things that I sure wish I had handled differently, and there are some things that I could have given more emphasis to. And sometimes it’s hard to focus on the things that you should feel good about. It’s a little hard to get over, too, when you step down.”
I’m most grateful for two things: the people I got to meet and the spaces I got to go in while I was here. I got to see the opening of the UNC Asian American Center, and I was frequently invited into these spaces that I would not have been in before. The second smaller thing is just tolerance for being uncomfortable and making people upset with me. It’s a tough club, but it gave me a much more tolerance for people not liking what I said or even me. And I think it really served me in a lot of ways.
Something I didn’t understand was how important relationships are. And when I look back, it’s like, everything good that happened was because of some kind of relationship, either that I already had coming in, people that I already knew who came with me and did something amazing that I didn’t think of, or people I’d met during the job. That influence led to something amazing happening, and those relationships were the key to getting things done.
Teddy: How did being student body president prepare you for the success that you see in your life now?
Coming from Gastonia in 1956, you were seen as a pretty backward person. Being student body president allowed me to see a bigger picture of the world. My experience at Carolina and thereafter changed my life almost entirely, from being a little country boy from Gastonia to somebody with a vision for the future. It’s helped me throughout my entire life.
It was a lesson taught to me by one of my predecessors that if you can find what makes someone else tick and surge that and then get out of their way, you’ve done them well. I think that’s what leading teams is really about. It’s not necessarily that you’re the one leading them or telling them what to do. You’re igniting their passion, you’re igniting their interests, and then letting them run with it, right? Being student body president, you have an executive branch under you, which I think has all looked very different for all of us.
It is probably not a coincidence that so many on this panel ended up being attorneys of some realm or another. It’s a great lesson in persuasion, in collaborating, because you don’t have formal authority in convincing people to work together to get things done. The other thing is, I had some great mentors. I remember one who came a couple of years before me saying that he decided that he he would never turn down a speaking opportunity. If he was asked, he would always say ‘yes.’
Student government was the underdog. We had a lot of initiatives that the Board of Trustees, the Board of Governors, and the General Assembly just did not like. And now in my job, I represent tribal nations who have been the underdog for millennia. But I think my SBP year gave me a real endurance for every time that you’re knocked down, just get back up, get back up. At some point something will break, something will change, and you just have to keep doing it.
To hear more from a former student body president, catch Ashton’s Catalyze podcast episode to be released this summer. You can subscribe to the series wherever you listen to podcasts.
About the author
Cate Miller ’25 of Wilmington, North Carolina, focuses on social media strategy for the Morehead-Cain Scholar Media Team.
Cate is passionate about public policy and healthcare. At Carolina, the scholar is involved with the Honors Carolina Student Association, the Institute of Politics, and the Campus Y. She also serves as healthcare policy head of the UNC Roosevelt Institute.
The first-year scholar graduated from Hoggard High School, where she served as student body president and president of her school’s National Honor Society chapter.