Albert and Gladys Coates and their school of government

May. 15, 2014 @ 12:44 PM

On my morning run, I pass by the building near my house in Chapel Hill. And every time, I say a word of thanks.
Other North Carolinians are grateful, too. A friend of mine told me last week, “The Institute of Government has made all the difference for our state. But, today, not enough people appreciate how much we owe it.”
Lots of us still call it the Institute, but for about 10 years its official name has been the School of Government of the University of North Carolina.
Today the school serves local government officials from all over the state. For example, it sponsors hundreds of classes, schools and conferences that serve thousands of public officials each year. The school’s faculty and staff of more than 100 professionals handle more than 100,000 requests for assistance annually. The school publishes more than 100 books, articles, journals and bulletins each year.
Like many other important public institutions, the school’s beginnings were modest and the product of one man’s dream.
In 1923 in his final year at Harvard Law School, Smithfield native Albert Coates considered two offers for employment. One was to return to Smithfield to practice law. The other was to teach at the law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I had a feeling,” he wrote later, “there was something I could do in Chapel Hill that I could not do in Smithfield, something I could do in a law school that I could not do in a law office, though I couldn’t spell out the difference in words. This was a turning point in my life.”
It was a turning point for North Carolina as well.
To improve his criminal law teaching, Coates traveled around the state to see what his students would experience when they graduated. He accompanied police on their rounds and watched law enforcement officials present their cases in courts.
He learned something else. Coates explained, “I soon found out that law-enforcing officers needed to know what I had learned from studying the books as badly as I needed to know what they had learned from working on the job. I started swapping my research for their experience, my knowledge of criminal law in the books for their knowledge of criminal law in action.”
The people Coates met on his travels started coming to Chapel Hill to ask his advice. In the late 1920s, he hosted conventions and conferences where officials studied the laws that affected their jobs and learned practical ways to comply with them.
In 1931, the year that is recognized as the beginning of the Institute, Governor O. Max Gardner presided at the opening of a two-day “school” for about 300 local officials. He said of the new Institute of Government that “he knew of no single program initiated by the University of North Carolina that carried greater promise for the people of this state ...”
With the help of his wife, Gladys, and donations Coates solicited from businesses and wealthy people across the state, the Institute became the go-to place for local government officials to learn their jobs and get help with their problems.
The first years of the Institute were largely funded by the financial sacrifices of Coates and Gladys, who was his enthusiastic and essential partner. Then, UNC-Chapel Hill made the Institute an official part of the university and the rest is history.
D.G. Martin’s regular weekly column appears on The Herald-Sun’s editorial page on Wednesdays and online at