Friday leaves stirring legacy
On the day UNC-Chapel Hill celebrated the 219th anniversary of the laying of the foundation for the nation’s first state university building, the University and the state mourned the loss of the UNC system’s most foundational figure, its cornerstone — William Friday.
Friday, whose pivotal role in the expansion and evolution of North Carolina’s public university system entered his name firmly on the list of the state’s most revered public figures, died in his sleep Friday. He was 92.
Friday began serving as the UNC system’s first president in 1956. He oversaw the system’s maturation from three to 16 campuses during a tumultuous period of social change until he retired in 1986.
The state’s top higher education and political leaders recall Friday as a mentor and hero — and in his later years, a sage willing to offer advice and a model for what was right about higher education.
Thomas Ross, current UNC-system president and former president at Davidson College, said in an interview that he frequently met with Friday, especially after moving to Chapel Hill.
“He was such a wise person and always had such great advice,” Ross said. “And then when I came into higher education, first at Davidson and then here, he’s always been there as a friend and as someone who had such a set of core principles and values and such a strength of commitment to higher education that it was an inspiration for the rest of us. All the time. Every day.”
Administrators used the anniversary of the University’s founding to pay tribute to Friday. A moment of silence was held during the University Day ceremony in Memorial Hall.
After the ceremony concluded, University Chancellor Holden Thorp led a procession to lay flowers on the Old Well in honor of Friday.
Afterward, Thorp said the thing he’ll remember most about Friday is his gracious guidance of students over many years.
“It’s the thoughtfulness that he had and the careful way that he conducted himself and the great advice that he gave to so many young people that he brought along in the University,” he said.
Throughout his 30-year tenure at the helm of the UNC system and into his retirement, Friday came to be associated with a set of guiding beliefs and principles that made a great impression on those who knew him.
He was a staunch advocate for academic freedom, a notion that was challenged by Cold War and racial tensions in the 1960s.
Seeking to promote equality and diversity while maintaining the unique culture of each campus, he shepherded the desegregation of the universities in the system and the preservation of its historically black universities.
He firmly believed in the state’s constitutional mandate to provide a free university education to state residents “as far as practicable,” and that promise’s ability to lift residents out of poverty.
He also became one of the first higher education leaders to raise concerns about the potentially corrupting influence of big-time athletic programs.
C.D. Spangler Jr., who succeeded Friday as system president, said Friday’s commitment to these values, coupled with his knack for leadership, helped the UNC system rise to prominence in the state.
“He had the confidence of alumni, the (N.C.) General Assembly, and he did not cause people to feel like he was a competitor — he was just a true leader. It automatically came to him.”
William Clyde Friday was born on July 13, 1920 in Raphine, Va., though he would spend most of his early life with his parents in Dallas, N.C., near Gastonia.
As it did for many families, the Great Depression had a devastating effect on Friday’s family and its aspirations. The period had a profound impact on Friday’s later goals of assisting the poor.
Friday first enrolled at Wake Forest University, a private university. He was the only one out of the 13 members of his high school graduating class to attend college.
Friday transferred to N.C. State College of Agriculture and Engineering, now N.C. State University, where he met his future wife, Ida Howell, on a blind date. A year after graduation, he received a commission for the U.S. Navy in the spring and married Ida Howell.
After being discharged from the Navy and moving to Chapel Hill with Ida, Friday graduated from UNC-CH’s law school in 1948 and began a rapid ascent through the University’s ranks.
After stints as assistant dean of students at UNC-CH and both assistant to the president and secretary of the Consolidated University, he was tapped as its president in 1956.
Soon after Friday assumed the presidency of the system, controversy began to envelop the campuses. The Cold War period saw student activists taking leading roles in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.
Troubled by the threat the protesters posed to conventional race relations and hierarchies of power, legislators in Raleigh passed the Speaker Ban bill in 1963. The bill prohibited members of the Communist Party or those who had invoked the Fifth Amendment from speaking at the campuses.
When Friday learned about the bill the day before its passage, he raced to Raleigh to convince lawmakers to vote against the legislation. In a 1990 interview for the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Friday said he worked all night long lobbying legislators, but the legislation was still enacted.
“A very craftily engineered piece of legislation that swept through there,” he said. “And we tried our best to reverse it the next day. And came that close to doing it. But that was a very bitter experience to have to go through.”
Friday attempted to maneuver behind the scenes to amend the policy but faced opposition at every turn. He kept in close contact with UNC-CH Student Body President Paul Dickson and advised him on a lawsuit to challenge the ban in court.
University history professor James Leloudis said the ban was designed to silence all dissent on campus, not just speech pertaining to communism. Friday opposed the ban on principle.
“Bill understood that free speech, especially free speech that’s critical, is absolutely essential to the functioning of a democratic society,” Leloudis said.
The issue came to a head when UNC-CH’s Students for a Democratic Society chapter invited two speakers to campus, whose presence violated the Speaker Ban. Many sat in front of the stone wall at the edge of McCorkle Place and listened to the speakers just inches away on Franklin Street.
“What really happened here was that everybody had an enormously intense, but very lasting experience of learning something about freedom,” Friday said. “They learned how costly it is to turn it away. And how important it is to absorb it, as a part of the way you live.”
Friday inserted himself into another contentious issue of the time — civil rights — by advocating for the desegregation of the system’s campuses and a greater allocation of resources to historically black universities.
Friday said the struggle was about more than achieving a diverse campus on paper.
“Frank Graham always believed, and he’s eternally right about it, you never achieve the ultimate objective of the (Brown v. Board of Education) decision. In other words, without changing the hearts of people.”
Expansion of the system
While Friday weathered several crises during his tenure as president, he also oversaw a burgeoning period of expansion for the UNC system.
He had a hand in the creation of Research Triangle Park in the late 1950s, and the consolidated 16-campus university system officially emerged in 1972. Since the 1972-73 fiscal year, the system’s state budget has swelled from almost $180 million to more than $2.5 billion.
Erskine Bowles, former UNC-system president, said in a statement that Friday has left an indelible mark on the system.
“For me, the University of North Carolina will always be Bill Friday’s University. He quite literally poured the foundation for it, and then over a distinguished tenure that spanned 30 years, he helped build our public university system into the extraordinary economic and cultural engine it is for today.”
The impression he left on those who worked under him was equally profound.
“He had opinions on issues and subjects, but he did not order people around or push them around,” said John Sanders, a retired professor at the UNC-CH School of Government.
“And he was clearly the leader.”
But perhaps no one knew the extent of the sacrifices Friday made for the system better than the man himself.
“There were times when Ida and I spent our income, almost completely some months, in the interests of what we were doing, and never would bill the state, because I just didn’t feel like it was right to,” he said in 1990.
Friday still assumed an active role in public life after his retirement from the presidency in 1986.
He served as a founding co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics — an initiative to reform athletics programs — and he continued his stint as host of “North Carolina People,” UNC-TV’s longest-running program.
Friday was known for his amiability and charm on the program, but other evidence of his influence on universities and the state might be less visible at first blush.
His steadfast support for the accessibility of higher education has had lasting impacts. In the 2010-11 academic year, all 16 system schools ranked in the bottom four of their peers for undergraduate tuition and fee rates.
Ross said that, despite recent tuition increases and academic scandals, Friday’s legacy and advice will always be a guiding influence as the system addresses new challenges.
“What he said to me was to always remember that this is the University of the people. And that it is our responsibility as a University to remember that we’re not just here for the education of students … But we have a responsibility to serve the people of North Carolina as well in many different capacities. His advice was never to forget that.”
Spangler said the state might never see another leader like Friday.
“You would hope that we are developing people like him in North Carolina, but that is going to be hard to achieve because he had a perfect record of achievement without causing any resentment.”
Madeline Will and Erika Keil contributed reporting.
Contact the desk editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading.
Read more in Bill Friday,
Share on social media?