MANTEO – The dedication recently of the new Marc Basnight Bridge over Oregon Inlet1 brings to mind the visionary former state Senate leader’s passion not just for the Outer Banks, but for higher education.
Partly because he didn’t go to college himself and considered it a shortcoming, Basnight became an ardent supporter of the University of North Carolina System until he left the Senate in 2011 after 26 years.
• Basnight was the foremost proponent of $3.1 billion in bonds for state universities and community colleges that voters approved in 2000.
With 728 projects, it was the largest bond package for higher education in U.S. history at the time and is still the largest in state history. The bonds won approval from 70 percent of the state’s voters and passed in all 100 North Carolina counties.2
Basnight also championed science and engineering programs at state universities, including the Engineering Complex at NC State, the Genomics Science Building at UNC-Chapel Hill, the Cardiovascular Disease Institute at East Carolina, the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC) at UNC-Charlotte, the College of Education at Appalachian State, the School of Health and Gerontology at Western Carolina and dental schools at UNC-Chapel Hill and ECU.
“The thing that struck me immediately about Marc Basnight was that he really cared deeply about the University and the world of opportunity a high-quality college education could open for any young kid in North Carolina,” said Erskine Bowles, who worked with Basnight during his five years as President of the UNC System.
“He got it,” Bowles said. “I’ve never worked with anyone else with a bigger heart, a clearer vision for the future and a stronger sense of accountability.”
• Basnight led the push to provide $180 million in state financing for the N.C. Cancer Hospital, which opened in 2009.
During his wife’s long battle with cancer, Basnight met hundreds of patients at UNC Hospitals and learned more about the links between scientific discovery and the potential to change outcomes for patients.
The new seven-story cancer hospital allowed UNC Hospitals and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center to replace its facility, an outdated 1950s tuberculosis sanatorium.
It was projected at the time that UNC would see the number of cancer patients double over the next 30 years. That turned out to be an underestimate – the number of patients seen at the NC Cancer Hospital has more than tripled as its 10th anniversary approaches. The hospital has seen patients from 99 of North Carolina’s 100 counties in recent years.
There aren’t many families in North Carolina that haven’t been touched by cancer. It is now the state’s leading cause of death – 40 percent of North Carolinians will develop cancer at some point in their lives.
• In 2007, Basnight pushed to create the University Cancer Research Fund, which has fueled research in many areas, including cancer prevention, early detection, genomics and immunotherapy. That investment has elevated funding for biomedical research at UNC into the top 10 in the nation, bringing with it a substantial economic impact for the state, as well as access to novel forms of detection and treatment.
Dr. H. Shelton Earp, then director of the Lineberger Center, called Basnight one of the greatest advocates ever for the center. “The Senator wanted the citizens of North Carolina not to have to travel to Texas or New York for the newest advances in cancer treatment,” Earp said.
The fund has accomplished that by supporting groundbreaking research that improved scientists’ understanding of cancer genetics and developed more-effective treatments.
• Despite a tightening state budget during the Great Recession in 2009, Basnight was able to find $243.5 million in state financing for the Biomedical Research Imaging Center (BRIC), known as Marsico Hall when it opened at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014.
The nine-story structure allows interdisciplinary collaboration between the UNC School of Medicine and the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy on state-of-the-art medical imaging, nanotechnology for medical uses, and development of new drugs and treatments.3
So yes, naming a bridge for Marc Basnight seems entirely appropriate. Basnight deserves the honor, not only for making a better, safer connection with the Outer Banks, but for his heroic efforts to help North Carolina bridge its way into a research-driven, 21st-century higher education system.
Vision such as this is rare, and we were blessed as a state that it came our way.