Former Director John L. Sanders Passes Away at 94

John L. Sanders

The UNC School of Government is saddened to share the passing of John L. Sanders, former longtime faculty member and two-time director. Sanders passed away on Sept. 22, 2021 at the age of 94. A memorial service will be planned for a later date.

In his more than sixty years of public service, Sanders devoted his career to the School of Government, the wider University and its parent system, as well as the state. He was an invaluable member of the School’s faculty for nearly forty years, where he developed an unrivaled expertise in state government organization, legislative representation, and state constitutional law. Sanders was always generous with leveraging this expertise far and wide. He worked extensively with legislative commissions to reorganize state government, revise the state’s constitution, and expand access to higher education for North Carolina residents.

“John Sanders embodied our University’s public service mission.  When I talk about Carolina being the most public of the publics - I often think of John Sanders,” said UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. “As a two-time director of the UNC School of Government, he was instrumental in expanding its work with thousands of public officials. He devoted his career to the state of North Carolina and I know his legacy will continue to inspire all those who work in service to North Carolina and its community members.”

Described by colleagues as “a last Renaissance man,” John’s dedication to service ran deep. Through each of his efforts, he was a crucial agent of positive change for North Carolina’s institutions and citizens. His life leaves behind a footprint of service that extends far beyond the halls of the building that bears his name.

A Devoted Director and Faculty Member

While earning his Juris Doctor degree from the UNC School of Law, Sanders began what would be a long and distinguished career with the then-Institute of Government as a research assistant. These were humble beginnings at an organization he would one day lead, but his work earned the notice of Institute founder and School of Law professor Albert Coates. He recruited Sanders to join the Institute’s faculty in 1956—an offer Sanders accepted. Sanders developed expertise in the fields of state government organization, reorganization and administration, state constitutional revision, legislative representation, and higher education organization and administration. North Carolina local governments from Murphy to Manteo widely considered his advice in these areas to be the source of record in guiding their decision-making processes.

Sanders spent 24 years as director of the Institute of Government: one 11-year term commencing in 1962 and a second 13-year term beginning upon his return to the position in 1979. Sanders devoted his leadership to increasing the number of faculty at the institution. His recruitment efforts were a success: by the time he stepped down as director in 1992, Sanders more than doubled the size of the faculty he initially led. Upon his full retirement in 1995, John left an organization that had grown not just in size but in stature. This effort has been invaluable in allowing the School to expand its mission to deliver the diverse array of services and resources that North Carolina’s public officials need to succeed in leading and serving their communities and the state.

“Albert Coates’s vision (for the Institute) was broad from the very beginning, and by the 1960s the Insitute was involved in all aspects of state and local government, as Sanders’s work with state government reorganization, constitional revision, and legislative representation demonstrates,” wrote School of Government faculty member Robert P. Joyce for the Carolina Alumni Review (reprinted in Popular Government). “The net Coates had cast was wide, and Sanders was dedicated to excellence in service to that very broad constituency.”

A Tireless Public Servant for UNC

Sanders’s ties and service to the University and wider UNC System span more than 70 years. A two-time graduate of Carolina, he was elected as undergraduate student body president in 1950. With the influence this position afforded him, Sanders publicly advocated for ending a University policy requiring segregation of races at public meetings on campus.

Following his graduation and throughout much of his professional career, Sanders continued to be an invaluable servant to the UNC System. After the North Carolina General Assembly voted to consolidate the state’s public universities under one unified system in 1971, Sanders volunteered his time to hold the first meeting with the new, singular Board of Governors to explain the logistics of the restructuring.

With the continued expansion of the UNC System, Sanders was selected to serve as its vice president for planning in 1973. As the System grew to sixteen schools, the Board of Governors entrusted Sanders with the responsibility to develop an academic program plan for each member institution. His Long Range Planning study was the first of its kind in the state and laid a framework for the state’s public higher education system that persists to this day. As he had done at the beginning of his UNC career as student body president, Sanders leveraged his newfound position to end segregation on campus. Guided by his resolute devotion to expanding opportunity within the state, he drafted the University’s first affirmative action plan and helped usher in an era of improved diversity and accessibility in our state's higher education system.

He was involved with the University’s Buildings and Grounds Committee for many years. His influence on the University system is still felt to this day through the ethical and legislative structures he worked to refine during his public service career.

“North Carolina’s Unsung Hero”

UNC system President William C. Friday referred to Sanders as “North Carolina’s Unsung Hero.” Throughout his career, Sanders has worked to move North Carolina forward while protecting integral aspects of its past. As an authority on the state’s constitution, he also performed staff work for the North Carolina Constitutional Commission, leading to revision of the state’s Constitution. His expertise and work in this area leave behind a legacy that remains enshrined in the document to this day.

Sanders took leave from the Institute in 1962 to lead staff work on the Governor’s Commission on Education Beyond the High School, a legislative act that established the statewide community college system. In this effort, Sanders made the lofty goal to expand access to higher education opportunities into a reality for countless North Carolinians. In 1979, he continued to expand upon this mission by serving as a member of the Community College and Technical Planning Commission and the Commission on the Future of North Carolina.

Just as he worked tirelessly to secure a strong future for the state, Sanders worked with equal fervor to preserve its rich history—both in the pages of textbooks and the physical institutions of our state. Along with his wife Ann, he donated many valuable manuscripts to both the Southern Historical and North Carolina Collection. He served as a founding member of the State Capitol Foundation and as its president from 1976 to 1991. Under his leadership, the organization funded continual restoration of the Capitol building in Raleigh.

A Meaningful Legacy

Although Sanders had little interest in accepting praise, over the years, he was awarded a range of the state and University’s most prestigious awards: a 1988 Thomas Jefferson Award, 1991 Distinguished Alumnus Award, 1993 C. Knox Massey Award, 1995 University Award, 1996 North Carolina Award, and a 1997 North Carolinian Award. In 2019, the Board of Trustees approved his receipt of an honorary Doctor of Laws (LL.D) degree from UNC-Chapel Hill—a fitting capstone in celebrating a career so dedicated to serving and improving the University.

Sanders would say his greatest honor was serving the people of North Carolina.

“John Sanders had a full and remarkable life, and I’ve never known anyone else remotely like him,” said Mike Smith, dean of the School of Government. “I am grateful for his influence and guidance, and especially for his friendship after I followed him as director of the Institute of Government. The School that we love was shaped by him, and it has allowed all of our faculty and staff to have a remarkable impact on North Carolina. John made me understand that focusing your life’s work on improving one state—North Carolina—was worthy of your best efforts. He communicated that our mission was important and meaningful, and he was right.”