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School of Social Work alum, former Chapel Hill mayor receives honorary degree

by Matthew Smith

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work graduates were not the only School representatives receiving degrees at the University’s 2024 spring commencement ceremony on May 11.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work alum Howard Lee, center, poses with Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson, left, and Executive Vice Provost Am Hertel during UNC’s spring commencement ceremony. Lee was awarded an honorary degree by the university.
School of Social Work alumnus and former Chapel Hill mayor Howard Lee was recognized by UNC as one of four honorary degree recipients for his outstanding service to North Carolina for more than six decades.

“Commencement is an opportunity for us to recognize extraordinary and accomplished individuals who embody the mission of this great institution and inspire us all,” Interim Chancellor Lee H. Roberts said.

Each year faculty select and the UNC Board of Trustees award individuals for distinguished service to the university, the state, the nation and the world through honorary degrees. It is the highest recognition conferred by the University.

Lee joined three others on stage to receive the honor, including world-renowned dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance, equity leader Deitre Epps, and former N.C. Senator Richard Y. Stevens.

“What a gift it was for the School of Social Work to have a representative like Mayor Lee onstage representing us,” Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson said. “His career accomplishments speak for themselves, but UNC, Chapel Hill and North Carolina would be lesser without his contributions.”

Lee was nominated for the honorary degree by Denby-Brinson and the School. The nomination recounted his numerous career and political accomplishments.

“His career and service to our state exemplify the School’s mission to ‘advance equity, transform systems and improve lives,’” Denby-Brinson said.

Lee grew up in Georgia as the son of a sharecropper before earning his undergraduate degree from Fort Valley State College. Shortly after graduating from college, Lee was drafted in 1959 and served two years in the Army, including a deployment to Korea.

Upon returning home and working as a probation officer, he enrolled at UNC and earned his Master of Social Work degree in 1966 — just three years before being elected mayor of Chapel Hill.

Interim Chancellor Lee H. Roberts presents Howard his honorary degree.
Despite being discouraged to run by entrenched politicians, Lee won the 1969 mayoral election by 400 votes, earning a then-record 4,734 votes while becoming the first African American to be elected mayor of a majority-white Southern city since Reconstruction. He served three terms as mayor of Chapel Hill.

His academic work continued at UNC and beyond. He served as a faculty member at the School from 1982–91 after holding a faculty appointment at North Carolina Central University and an administrator position at Duke University. Lee was known as a fighter for education reforms and increased funding and standards. In 2009, he was named the first executive director of the North Carolina Education Cabinet.

Lee’s service to North Carolina went far beyond academics, however. He was appointed as the state’s Secretary of Natural Resources and Community Development, holding the post from 1977–81. He was instrumental in advocating for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail that now stretches nearly 1,200 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks.

His political career continued after his service to Chapel Hill. Lee was a legislator in the North Carolina Senate for 13 years and served as the chair of the N.C. State Board of Education and as a member of the state’s Utilities Commission.

In 2008, Lee published his memoir “The Courage to Lead: One Man’s Journey in Public Service.” The book details his survival in the Jim Crow South, his rise to political prominence, and his triumphs over the racial barriers he faced during his career of public service.

Learn more about this year’s University honorary degree recipients.

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