Saturday, January 27, 2007

Happy Birthday, University of Georgia

On January 27, 1785, the Georgia legislature approved a charter for the University of Georgia. The preamble said: “When the minds of the people in general are viciously disposed and unprincipled and their conduct disorderly, a free government will be attended with greater confusions and evils more horrid than the wild uncultivated state of nature. It can only be happy where the public principles and opinions are properly directed and their manners regulated.” (You can view the charter here.)

No other state had chartered a public university before this. (Other institutions of higher learning existed--Harvard, for example, had been around since 1636, almost a century and a half earlier--but they were private, not public, schools.) So the University of Georgia, chartered 222 years ago today, is the oldest state university, right?

Well, the University of Georgia didn’t accept its first student until 1801, sixteen years after it was chartered. Can it be a university without students? Does a professor talking in a classroom make a sound if there is no student there to hear her?

On the other hand, the University of North Carolina was not chartered until 1789--but it accepted its first student in 1795, six years before Georgia.

So which is the oldest state university: Georgia, which was chartered in 1785 but did not open until 1801; or North Carolina, which was not chartered until 1789 but opened in 1795?

This is a difficult question. My opinion is that you can’t have a university without students. The University of Georgia was just words on a sheet of paper until 1801, six years after the University of North Carolina was up and running.

The fact that I have two degrees from the University of North Carolina has nothing to do with my perspective on the matter. Instead, I base my opinion on a Georgia precedent. When was Georgia itself founded? On June 20, 1732, when the charter was signed? Or on February 12, 1733, when James Oglethorpe landed with his first colonists at Yamacraw Bluff? The Georgia General Assembly passed a law in 1909 that said February 12 should be observed as “Georgia Day,” marking the state’s founding. This means that, according to the state government, Georgia didn’t exist until there were colonists here. Using the same logic, universities don’t really exist until there are students on the campus.

So today we wish a Happy Founders' Day (as they call it in Athens) to the University of Georgia --the nation’s second oldest state university.