Weiss Urban Livability Program

About the Weisses

New biography about the Weisses:
Giving Is Good for the Soul: The Life and Legacy of Charles and Shirley Weiss

Charles and Shirley Weiss, retired professors of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill began an innovative program in 1992 designed to improve communities through interdisciplinary exploration of the concept of “urban livability.” Their active involvement with the arts, education, and civic organizations, coupled with extensive world travel, convinced the Weisses that a multi-faceted, interdisciplinary approach is essential to improving the quality of life in contemporary communities. Believing that graduate students are an invaluable resource for the future, the Weisses created a program that centers on the support and nurturing of graduate students.

Charles and Shirley Weiss in Machu Picchu, 1958

Charles and Shirley Weiss explore the fabled lost Inca city of Manchu Picchu, August 1958. Charles was on a teaching and field assignment at the National Engineering University in Lima, Peru. That year, Shirley became the first female faculty member in the Department of City and Regional Planning.

Professors Emeriti Charles M. and Shirley F. Weiss have a rather large “University family.” So large, in fact, that it extends from one end of Carolina campus to the other. This husband and wife duo has influenced students and other faculty in their departments — indeed, all over campus — since they began their careers here.

Shirley became the first female faculty member in the Department of City and Regional Planning in 1958. She retired in 1991. Charles was a professor of environmental biology from 1956 until his retirement in 1989.

The Weisses spent many years here at UNC-Chapel Hill, but their longtime service only begins their list of contributions to the community. More importantly, they have served as mentors to their students, even after retirement.

“The most rewarding thing about teaching is seeing your students succeed,” Shirley said. “Our proudest moments are when we see how far they have progressed in their career choices.”

Charles agreed. “When you're teaching graduate students, you tend to work with much smaller groups. In the end, these students become a part of your family,” he explained.

Also fulfilling, they said, was that they were instrumental in helping Carolina remove the gender barrier in achieving equity in salary level and award of tenure. “Times were changing in the mid 70's,” Charles explained. “Congress passed affirmative action legislation. It took a while for the University to recognize that appointments had to be made 'behind a screen,' so to speak. Musicians are always chosen behind a screen — it's the music that counts, not who's playing the horn or the violin.”

It was 1973 when Shirley received her Ph.D. from Duke University in economics and was promoted to full professor —the very first female professor in her department. “Without Charles’ support, I would not have been able to do what I did,” she smiled. “I had support from mentors at Duke and Carolina.”

Shirley said she believes it's very important for graduate students to have role models. “Many students who are now professors elsewhere will speak of how I helped them,” she said. “I think in my case, being a woman and trying to make my own way, made me more approachable or sympathetic. Students often come and tell Charles how I counseled them in one way or another. They remember — it's rather amazing. They'll say, ‘Shirley was my teacher.’ That makes me feel ancient, but then very proud.”

Now retired, Charles and Shirley Weiss are just as busy as they were as professors. They are worldwide travelers, photojournalists of all their adventures, and lovers of education, museums and the performing arts. Closer to home, the Weisses also provide funding for 11 Carolina programs, including the Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center, the Ackland Art Museum and the Morehead Planetarium.

The Weisses also established the Weiss Urban Livability Program, a fellowship program designed to support Carolina graduate students from various disciplines who are committed to improving quality of life in contemporary communities. The program provides support for an average of eight graduate students with various research interests related to urban livability.

The Weiss Fellowship has guided graduate students toward numerous careers serving the community. Some former fellows are now city managers, public health doctors, water and sanitation engineers, community development leaders, transportation planners, social workers, and teachers. When asked how the fellowship impacted their lives, fellows remember:

“I identify the Weiss Fellowship as one of the great achievements of my life. It has given me an opportunity to learn about issues of urban livability and things that touch your heart.”

“Interacting with the Weisses themselves and learning about the breadth and depth of their interests and accomplishments made me believe in the impact that individuals can have.”

“Being a Weiss Fellow reinforced the idea of using environmental knowledge to positively affect the human condition.”

“We formed the program because of our shared interests and appreciation for the need for graduate support,” Shirley said. She said the graduate students are the highlight of the program. “It has been really remarkable.”

Charles and Shirley Weiss' support and mentoring, which began almost half a century ago, continue to touch students' lives. “We want to provide support for current and future generations of students to have the experience of multi-disciplinary graduate study in this great University.”

— Nadia R. Watts and Emily Wynes