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One on One: A public intellectual steps down

One of North Carolina’s important public intellectuals has stepped down.

What is a public intellectual and who stepped down?

One definition of the word from Collins Dictionary is “an intellectual, often a noted specialist in a particular field, who has become well known to the general public for a willingness to comment on current affairs.”

I think of a public intellectual as a smart someone who is an expert in an important field, such as history, economics, science and health and who has earned the trust of the public.

On the national scene, think of people like Jon Meacham, a writer of best-selling books about the presidency and American history. When he puts his history lessons to work explaining modern day political challenges, people listen. Similarly, North Carolina’s presidential historian William Leuchtenburg, who will celebrate his 100th birthday next year, is still writing and commenting on current issues.

On health issues, Dr. Antony Fauci uses his deep knowledge and experience in infectious diseases to explain to the political leadership and a national audience the complexities of how the coronavirus works.

Similarly, North Carolina’s secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen brings earned authority to the public when she explains the science that drives controversial, restrictive, and unpopular governmental actions to respond to the coronavirous threat.

While I know of no widely accepted definition of public intellectual, there are some common themes that others use to describe such people: well-known, intelligent, and learned people whose writings are recognized not only by academics but also non-academics and members of society.

A technical writing business, Untold Content, offers this definition: “We define public intellectuals as individuals in pursuit of knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing – those with an irrepressible belief in the importance of fact-finding, researching, sharing insights, and hearing diverse perspectives of both decision-makers and those impacted by them.”

This definition fits Ferrel Guillory, who retired December 31 as professor and director of the Program on Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media after 23 years of distinguished service.

A native of Louisiana and a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, he came to North Carolina to join the News & Observer in 1972.  First as chief capitol correspondent and then for more than 20 years as a reporter, chief of the paper’s Washington bureau, and as a columnist, he sought to understand and explain the needs of the state and region and the roadblocks to meeting those needs.

In 1995, he took a leave from the N&O to work with MDC, an organization founded in the 1960s to expand opportunity in the region. There he developed and wrote an annual publication, “The State of the South,” a comprehensive review of the challenges facing the region and possible responses.

In 1997 he joined the journalism school faculty and quickly began to use his connections to bring together journalists, political and community leaders and decision makers together with students and faculty. He made sure they learned from each other and faced the hard facts about the state’s and region’s needs. He focused on education and workforce training, but he shared with all his storehouse of insider political wisdom.

He helped organize non-profits such as the N. C. Center for Public Policy Research and its affiliate EducationNC to provide continuing attention to the state’s and region’s challenges.

His friend and colleague Gerry Hancock paid tribute to Guillory, “For decades, in addition to his formal job at the moment, Ferrel provided quiet and generous counsel to governors, legislators, journalists, students, aspiring leaders and countless others on the major challenges facing our state and our people.”

As Guillory steps down from his university position, we can hope he will step up again to continue his service as one of our most important public intellectuals. 

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and other times.

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