When Charles Hight was asked to throw his hat in the ring for the vacant position as dean of UNC Charlotte’s then-named College of Architecture, the first thing he did was seek his friends’ advice.
“They said you would be making the biggest mistake of your life if you go to that place,” chuckled Hight, 81, from his home in Tampa, Fla. He understood their reaction. “The program was in turmoil – fundamentally, intellectually, design-wise and financially bankrupt as far as the college was concerned,” recalled the dean emeritus, of the school’s early years.
He accepted the position anyway, and for the next 26 years – from 1976 to 2002 – poured all of his energy into creating an architecture program now with a reputation for being run by top experts in the field who churn out students who quickly land jobs after graduation.
This month, Hight and his wife, Jeannette, announced they would help continue that tradition further with a $1 million estate gift to the School of Architecture.
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The gift will be used in two ways: to fill an endowed professorship in Innovative Architecture and Technology Design, and for the Hight Architecture Fellowship, a scholarship for exemplary architecture students.
“I have confidence in the university and in its school of architecture,” said Hight, of their decision to leave the estate gift. “The faculty is building upon what was happening when I was there, and we felt an obligation to assist with that.”
Today’s School of Architecture has evolved considerably since its early days.
When Hight took the position as dean in 1976, the university’s architecture program was five years old and had never sought accreditation – a hindrance in attracting top professors and students to the school.
Years earlier, Hight had faced a similar situation while on the faculty at Tuskegee University, when he led the charge to develop the first accredited architectural program in a predominately African-American university in the South, during the civil rights movement.
He was successful on both occasions.
“Challenges can turn out to be great opportunities and experiences,” said Hight.
At UNCC, Hight saw the value of a good faculty, and hired distinguished designers from around the country to teach or lecture, even if it was only part-time.
“We were able to attract a lot of bright faculty, many whom are still there,” he said. “It was as much a learning experience for the young faculty as it was for the students.”
That practice of hiring top innovators in the field still holds strong.
“I’ve got faculty in the School of Architecture who are working on photovoltaic algae buildings so that we can generate our own power from a green facade. I’ve got people who are doing research on geopolymer concrete chemistry to reduce the impact of portland cement. I could go on,” said Ken Lambla, dean of the College of Arts + Architecture.
Hight intends for the $1 million gift to continue attracting the best and brightest to the school.
“We hope we can extend whatever success we had and take it to another level,” he said.