By John Ross
If not for a torrential rainstorm, the branch of the University of North Carolina in Asheville would likely not have become America’s premier public liberal arts college.
When economist David G. Brown became chancellor in 1984, he asked himself: “What is UNCA’s comparative advantage?” Then, baccalaureate degrees from private liberal arts colleges were perceived to be far better than those from publics.
Founded in 1927 by Buncombe County as its free junior college, UNCA’s predecessor occupied a floor in the new Biltmore High School. At the time, the city also operated a junior college. As the Great Depression deepened, in 1930 the two were merged into Biltmore Junior College and became Asheville-Biltmore Junior College in 1936.
After short stints in two other locations, it moved to Seely’s Castle in 1949. Erected by Fred Loring Seely who built the Grove Park Inn for his father-in-law E. W. Grove, the 20,000-square-foot stone mansion sat on 29 acres atop Sunset Mountain. The “College in the Sky” resembled a fine old New England liberal arts college.
Still a junior college, the school came under state control in 1957, moved to its present campus in 1961, was authorized to grant 4-year baccalaureate degrees in 1963, and joined the state university system as UNCA in 1969.
Brown was attracted to the chancellorship because of UNCA’s cross disciplinary liberal arts curriculum and its faculty’s dedication to undergraduates’ achievement. After extensive conversations with faculty, students and community leaders, he came to understand: “We could not be the nation’s finest regional public university, and we could not be the nation’s finest liberal arts college. But we could be the country’s finest public liberal arts college.” Soaring college costs were driving families to seek the highest value for their tuition dollars. This gave rise to a spate of articles on public “Ivies” and books profiling America’s best colleges, including The New York Times Selective Guide to Colleges, by the Times’ education editor, Ted Fiske. Presidents of the nation’s 3,500 colleges deluged Fiske with requests to be included. Brown had tried as well, but to no avail.
Then Jack Tyrer, headmaster of Asheville School, called Brown. Fiske had come to speak to his students, and afterwards Tyrer had promised him a tour of the mountains. But rain had postponed a football game with arch rival Christ School. Tyrer had to attend the rescheduled game. Would Brown entertain Fiske for a couple of hours?
“Fiske wanted to see the Blue Ridge Parkway,” Brown says. On the drive he pushed him to include a group of “small public Ivy” colleges like UNCA. Fiske asserted that they were not “Ivy-like.” However, a few weeks later he called Brown to report he would include the schools in his next book as a unique sector: public liberal arts colleges.
Named UNCA chancellor a year ago, Nancy Cable is utterly committed to the liberal arts, which connect curiosity and critical thinking, imagination and impact. “The world is changing exponentially,” she says. “Today’s graduates will face challenging careers in jobs, half of which have not been invented yet. They will be called upon to solve problems through collaboration and technology. A strong sense of ethics and understanding of cultural differences is essential.”
Just a moment’s chat with Cable is all that’s required to sense her determination that UNCA will broaden its leadership in the state and nation while maintaining its commitment to Asheville and the region. More than half of this spring’s graduates have chosen to apply their educations here in Western North Carolina.