Former UNC-system President Bill Friday dies at 92

Video by Colleen McEnaney and Mary Wurzelmann / The Daily Tar Heel

Chancellor Holden Thorp and Chairwoman of the Faculty Jan Boxill discuss Bill Friday’s legacy and impact on UNC.

Former UNC-system President William Friday has died, said Nancy Davis, spokeswoman for the University. He was 92.

Davis said today’s University Day ceremonies will pay tribute to Friday, the first system president and the state’s most prominent higher education leader. Flowers will be placed outside Graham Memorial for people to lay near the Old Well.

Friday was appointed as president of the UNC system in 1956. His tenure, spanning three decades, was marked by numerous transitions, ranging from a major system restructuring to changes associated with the civil rights movement.


Bill Friday has died. He is pictured here with his wife, Ida.

“He was one of the state’s most devoted public servants,” said John Sanders, a retired professor at the UNC-CH School of Government who worked with Friday on various University-related projects.

Friday was born in 1920 and raised in Dallas, N.C., during the Great Depression.

He graduated from what is now N.C. State University with a bachelor’s degree in textile manufacturing in 1941. He served in the U.S. Naval Reserve for four years and received a law degree from UNC-CH’s School of Law in 1948, according to UNC-TV.

In 1971, fifteen years after Friday was named the UNC-system president, the system underwent a significant overhaul as a result of state legislation. Friday, who had served as president for the boards of governors at six universities ­— including UNC-CH ­— was appointed to lead all 16 N.C. universities in the system.

Friday also presided during a period of racial desegregation in the 1970s. While his efforts to desegregate universities and preserve historically black colleges were widely unpopular, Sanders said Friday was effective in working with students and legislators in bringing about change.

“Some historians will think he should have been bolder, but I think he did as much as he could given the situation and the problems at hand in bringing about desegregation,” Sanders said in an interview this summer.

Friday remained active in university affairs even after his 1986 retirement. He spoke out against tuition increases, arguing that they have dramatically increased over the years.

“We’re raising tuition way out of proportion than what I think the Constitution requires,” he said in a 2012 interview with The Daily Tar Heel.

In the face of these myriad changes faced by the UNC system, one of Friday’s major goals was to make the system work for the state, Sanders said.

“Over the years, he tried to make the university system the most effective instrument to the state that it could be, regardless of the number of campuses,” Sanders said. “He had a remarkable ability to work with a variety of people of different viewpoints.”

Friday is survived by his wife, Ida Friday.

State leaders react to Friday’s death

UNC-system President Thomas Ross: “Bill Friday lived a life that exemplified everything that has made our University — and the state of North Carolina — great. He was a man of unquestioned honor and integrity who devoted a lifetime of extraordinary leadership and service to the University and state he loved so much. He also was a man of deep courage and conviction who never backed away from doing the right thing for our students, our faculty, or our citizens. We have truly lost one of North Carolina’s most special treasures.

“Personally, President Friday was a mentor and role model to me throughout my career, and I am privileged to have followed in his footsteps as president of the University of North Carolina. He quite literally set the national gold standard for university leadership, and it’s safe to say that no one will ever be more respected or influential in American higher education. Over the years, I have valued and appreciated his thoughtful perspective, his sage advice, and his insight about our state and its people. His life was a remarkable testament to the notion that one person can make a lasting difference and change the world for the better. He was an inspiration to us all. I will miss him deeply.”

Chancellor Holden Thorp: “North Carolina has lost one of its most remarkable citizens in Bill Friday. His influence on public higher education in our state and across the nation is legendary. In a lifetime devoted to public service, Bill Friday was committed to providing access to high-quality, affordable higher education to North Carolina students. He was tireless in his efforts to underscore the importance of higher education to people from all walks of life, as well as to our state’s future prosperity.

I always admired his conviction to defend academic freedom and freedom of speech. It was only fitting that Mr. Friday joined us a year ago today – on University Day – to dedicate the Speaker Ban Marker in McCorkle Place documenting the efforts that our own students and he made to overturn a misguided law.

As UNC president, he governed and served with passion, integrity and an abiding commitment to justice. And the positive impact both he and Ida have had at Carolina for thousands of students, faculty and staff is difficult to describe because it has been so pervasive for all these years.

Mr. Friday was exceedingly gracious in sharing his wise counsel with me when I became chancellor. He always did so with a gentle, guiding hand and a deep appreciation for the office and the responsibilities that go with it. His keen insights and common sense were unparalleled. Like so many others throughout North Carolina, I will miss Bill Friday, but I know that his legacy – especially at our University – will always live on for future generations.”

Gov. Bev Perdue: “Bill Friday was truly a Renaissance man, a phenomenal educational and human service leader, a marvelous husband and daddy, and my friend.

Bob and I are very sad to learn of his passing. His dedication and service to North Carolina and monumental impact on our state cannot be overstated.

There has been no person in North Carolina’s history who more fully exemplified how one individual can, year after year, make a tremendous difference.

It’s only fitting that today, University Day at UNC, that the Carolina angels called him home.

We loved him so much and will miss him dearly.”

Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate: “I am deeply saddened by the news of Bill Friday’s passing today, which is University Day. Dr. Friday was a good friend and one of the finest North Carolinians of this or any generation. We have lost a good man, one of North Carolina’s greatest public servants and a true champion of education.

As the head of our UNC system, Dr. Friday worked tirelessly to make sure North Carolinians from every corner of the state would have access to an excellent, affordable education. Even after his retirement, his passionate work in the fight for a better future never diminished. We all owe Dr. Friday a debt of gratitude for his legendary service. Lucille and I send our thoughts and prayers to Ida Friday and the entire family.”

Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the Republican gubernatorial candidate: “Ann and I were saddened to hear of William Friday’s death. I was honored to be on his show on two different occasions, and in addition to his outstanding intellect, he would immediately put you at ease with his gentlemanly nature. North Carolina will miss him greatly, but we will benefit from his contributions to our state for generations to come.”

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