Celebrating the Urban Institute’s 50th Anniversary

The Urban Institute turns 50, Part 1: Urban studies on a rural campus

The UNC Charlotte campus in 1969 was outside the city limits, on what was recently farmland, and far more rural than urban. It was an audacious location to found an "urban institute." Photo: UNC Charlotte archives

The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute is marking its 50th anniversary in 2019-20 with a five-part series recalling its history. Sources for these stories include interviews, newspaper articles, university documents and two books – Charlotte and UNC Charlotte: Growing Up Together by Ken Sanford and Dean W. Colvard: Quiet Leader, by Marion A. Ellis.

In 1970, when UNC Charlotte formally launched its Urban Institute, the campus had just nine academic buildings. Cows grazed the surrounding pastures and, on at least one occasion, ventured onto athletic fields. 

It wasn’t an obvious locale for urban studies, particularly since the young campus was outside the city. It would be another 20 years before Charlotte annexed the property from Mecklenburg County. People joked about the University of North Carolina at Newell. 

The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute Turns 50

Celebrating the past, looking to the future

But from the moment this commuter college became a university in 1965, Dean Colvard, its first chancellor, imagined bigger things.  Early on, faculty and administrators came up with the idea for an urban institute that would share its expertise with the Charlotte region, helping communities solve what the chancellor described to N.C. legislators in 1968 as “some of the nation’s great urban problems.”

Today, the late chancellor’s vision is reality. UNC Charlotte is an urban research campus with 30,000 students. For 50 years, its Urban Institute has researched dozens of topics –  land conservation, city-county consolidation, affordable housing and evictions, to name a few – helping shape the Charlotte region by supplying policymakers with data, new ideas and best practices. Along the way, the institute has gained a national reputation for skillfully sharing its applied research and engaging with its community.  

It all began on a shoestring budget. In 1969, when the university asked the state legislature to establish an urban studies center, it received $85,000. This was substantially less than its $500,000 request, but part-time director Norman Schul, a young geographer who’d come from UNC Greensboro, managed to find enough additional money to double the amount. 

Like many university employees in those days, Schul, a PhD from Syracuse University, wore multiple hats. When he began building the Institute for Urban Studies and Community Service, as it was known in its early years, he also chaired the Geography Department. And served as dean of the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences. 

Colvard suggested that the institute be patterned on an agricultural extension agency, a vision shaped by Colvard’s experience as College of Agriculture dean at N.C. State University and president of Mississippi State University, both land-grant universities whose robust ag extension agencies served the people of their states. 

Norm Schul. UNC Charlotte archives.

This proved an effective model for an aspiring urban university. “He was very skilled at understanding when you’re going to deliver on a particular mission, you have to have a vehicle to make that happen,” says UNC Charlotte Chancellor Philip Dubois.  The institute became that vehicle, connecting the university with its region. 

Colvard let Schul figure out the details. “It was kind of an open season with whatever I thought would work,” recalls Schul, now retired in Charlotte. He began by organizing conferences on topics that would attract city officials and business leaders, seeking “any way we could bridge the gap between the university and downtown.”

He also amplified the institute’s reach by encouraging faculty collaborations. That decision led to its first big success – Metrolina Atlas, published in 1972 by the University of North Carolina Press and edited by geographers James Clay and Douglas Orr Jr., with many chapters written by faculty members.  

The book focused on Mecklenburg and 11 surrounding counties, with chapters covering subjects such as history, the physical environment, industries, politics and education. Charts and maps illustrating everything from regional bus routes and Civil War battle sites to political party voting patterns in gubernatorial races were included. It became a valuable tool for “the businessman, planner, journalist and public official – or anyone who wants to understand his region and anticipate its future,” as a Charlotte Observer editorial declared. 

The atlas also arrived at the perfect time. Local leaders, eager to attract new business and industry, faced unimpressive population numbers – Mecklenburg County’s population was just 355,000 in 1970. But the atlas emphasized the Metrolina region, which had a population of 1.2 million, and more potential economic clout. Orr and Clay traveled the region making dozens of presentations explaining the interconnectedness of Mecklenburg and towns within a 50-mile radius.

Published in 1972, Metrolina Atlas helped change the region's perception of itself. UNC Charlotte archives.

“It got a lot of notice for the university,” recalls Orr, who went on to serve as a UNC Charlotte vice chancellor and president of Asheville’s Warren Wilson College. The book, and the institute itself, helped “define and facilitate Charlotte’s self-awareness – what it was and what it was becoming.”

The institute published two other important works in the early 1970s. North Carolina Atlas, a statewide version of the earlier book, was edited by Clay, Orr and geographer Al Stuart. And Citizen Attitudes and Metropolitan Government: City-County Consolidation in Charlotte, by political scientist Schley Lyons, became an important resource as Charlotte and Mecklenburg County studied consolidating functions as the city grew. 

In 1974, Schul left the directorship so he could focus on his role as dean. University leaders replaced him with James L. Cox, formerly executive director of the Council of University Institutes for Urban Affairs. 

Cox took the institute in a different direction, offering academic courses in urban subjects and focusing on basic research. But this wasn’t Colvard’s vision. The institute had been conceived to do applied research, acting as a facilitator, bringing in faculty from various departments. By 1978, Cox had left the institute.

At least one significant project was completed under Cox’s watch, however. Political scientist Bill McCoy, who’d joined the institute on a part-time basis, drew up a potential City Council district map for a coalition of neighborhood leaders trying to replace the council’s system of at-large representation. 

In 1977, city voters approved a referendum to create a new hybrid system based on the map McCoy had created – four at-large seats and seven district seats. 

The system “broke the grip that southeast suburbs had held on municipal decision making since the early twentieth century and that wealthy men had enjoyed since the earliest days of the city’s history,” Tom Hanchett writes in Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975.

After Cox left, university leaders again needed an Urban Institute director. Orr recalls Chancellor E.K. Fretwell Jr. asking how the institute could become a player in developing University City.

And he recalls Jim Clay’s reply: “Give me the leadership of the Urban Institute, and I can make it happen.”

Later, Orr asked Clay, who’d become his close friend, if he’d been serious. Clay said yes. Orr nominated him for the job. Fretwell appointed him. Soon, Clay would take on the Urban Institute’s most ambitious project to date – a project that would help change the shape of Charlotte.

[Read Part 2: How the Urban Institute changed Charlotte]