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Remembering Ruel W. Tyson, Jr.

“Dreams are important engines of change since they pay no attention to what we are pleased to call reality, with its predetermined grooves, barriers, and signs marked: do not enter.”

– Ruel W. Tyson, Jr.

The Institute for the Arts and Humanities has become a home for faculty on campus. Its spaces are often brimming with life because it’s where colleagues gather over coffee, lectures fill the University Room, and in the Fellows Room, new ideas are formed by faculty under an engraving of the University’s constitution. In the Institute’s 30-year history, countless faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been able to pursue scholarly research, forge new connections, and be recognized for their accomplishments. The Institute’s model for faculty support is all credited to its visionary founder, Ruel Willoughby Tyson, Jr.

On May 30, 2019, the University lost a scholar, teacher, colleague, and friend with the passing of Ruel W. Tyson, Jr. His life dedicated to scholarship and service will be forever remembered at Carolina. To read his full obituary, please click here.

From top: Ruel at Yale in 1965; Ruel during his first year at UNC in 1968; He and Mary Flanagan stand outside West House; Ruel cuts the ribbon at the Hyde Hall in 2002; Ruel is featured in College’s magazine in 2006; Ruel sits in the Fellows Room in 2017.

Early life

A North Carolinian, Ruel was born on December 2, 1930, in the small town of Winterville, just immediately south of Greenville, N.C. He grew up on the banks of the Tar River as if he was destined to become a Tarheel later in life. It was here in rural Pitt County where Ruel’s teacher, Rosa Noble, first taught him how to read. From then on, Ruel’s life would be molded by words and literature.

Ruel attended public schools in Greenville before receiving his degree in philosophy, with highest honors, from Washington and Lee University in June 1953. His pursuit of scholarship led him to universities both near and far, starting at Yale University where he attended Divinity School and met his wife, Martha Jane. His academic career continued to Victoria University of Manchester in Manchester, England; the University of Chicago; and St. Anthony’s College at the University of Oxford. Ruel and Martha returned to the states, where his first teaching position was at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, T.X.


Coming to Carolina 

In 1967, he arrived at Chapel Hill to join the faculty in the Department of Religious Studies. His research spanned the topics of humanistic education, religious and public ethics, and the philosophy and anthropology of religion. He served as department chair from 1975-1980, and was also the founding director of the Carolina Seminar Program. Ruel saw Carolina Seminars as an opportunity to build bridges between scholars and researchers on campus, building a network among those whose work usually separates them from one another.

During his tenure at Carolina, Ruel was the recipient of numerous awards including the Nicolas Salgo Distinguished Teaching Award, the Thomas Jefferson Award, the General Alumni Association’s Faculty Service Award, and the Chancellor’s Award at Carolina. He was also inducted to the Order of the Golden Fleece, the university’s oldest and highest honor society for those who have made significant contributions to undergraduate education.


Founding the Institute

Interdisciplinary collaboration and intellectual stimulation drove Ruel’s mission to create a place that fostered liberal arts learning and supported faculty excellence at UNC. With support from the College of Arts and Sciences, what is now known as the Institute for the Arts and Humanities was created in 1987. The IAH quickly implemented its flagship Faculty Fellowship Program in 1988.

Ruel led the Institute’s development for the next 20 years, serving as director until 2006. With his leadership, the Institute brought on an advisory board, built and relocated to Hyde Hall in 2002, and expanded its programming. Today, the IAH supports all UNC faculty across ranks through its programs, fellowships, grants, and awards offered. The Institute’s mission is to empower faculty to achieve their full potential by creating community and cultivating leadership. Following Ruel’s vision, the IAH carries out the mission by taking a humanistic approach to the support and development of Carolina faculty.


Honoring Ruel 

The support of Carolina faculty will live on as Ruel’s legacy. In lieu of flowers, Ruel wished that all gifts in his honor would be made to the Ruel W. Tyson, Jr. Distinguished Professorship, which directly supports the Institute and its initiatives.

Ruel’s service was held on Tuesday, June 11, 2019 at the Chapel of the Cross and the Institute held a celebration in his honor on September 6, 2019 in Hyde Hall.

As Ruel would say in his favorite closing phrase: “to be continued.”






Ruel summoned the words of the past and present to invoke direction for the future.
To share a quote about Ruel, please click the button above.


“Ruel Tyson will be remembered as a strategic and bold visionary. Thirty-three years ago, he foresaw how a central home for the arts and humanities could aid in recruiting and retaining our world-class faculty. From his vision, the IAH grew into a vibrant and thriving community of engaged scholars and fellows from diverse disciplines – over 1,000 faculty have benefited directly from IAH investment in their research and teaching.”

– Kevin Guskiewicz, Chancellor 
Academic Leadership Fellow

“Ruel Tyson was known as an extraordinary teacher of religious studies who taught his students to think critically and compassionately. He encouraged faculty to collaborate and to seek fresh perspectives from scholars outside their fields. Ruel was a beloved friend and colleague, and a mentor to so many.”

– Terry Rhodes, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences
Faculty Fellow, Academic Leadership Fellow

“He was a visionary leader in the area of faculty development and faculty support, and in advocacy for the arts and humanities. He was able to use intellectual inquiry and storytelling and thoughtful dialogue to build an intellectual community across this campus.”

– Mark Katz, Distinguished Professor of Music
IAH Director Emeritus (2014-2019)

“Ruel was a visionary who created the IAH from scratch. He was also the most generous person I ever met. He gave of himself unstintingly to colleagues, to students, and to UNC—a mentor to one and all, and beloved by all of us who are in his debt.” 

– John McGowan, John W. and Anna H. Hanes Distinguished Professor Emeritus 
IAH Director Emeritus (2006-2014)

“Ruel had gifts in abundance, and he shared them generously with all who crossed his path and with the University he gladly served. He was our intellectual provocateur. A passionate raconteur. Collector of quotes and disseminator of ideas. A loving critic, reformer and rebel. Inspiring teacher, faithful mentor, intellectual father and friend.”

— Barbara Rosser Hyde, President of the J.R. Hyde III Family Foundation 
IAH Advisory Board Member

“Ruel’s passion, his whole career, was in devotion to improving the life of his students and colleagues through intellectual stimulation and the pursuit of knowledge. He was uniquely successful in his endeavor. His selfless commitment to all of us made him the dearest of friends.” 

– Roger Perry, President of East West Partners Management Company, Inc.
IAH Advisory Board Vice Chair

To view all the Good to Great at Carolina interviews, please visit the playlist here.