On the day UNC-CH 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 in October. 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 Davidson College president, 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. Everyday.”
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, desegregation and the state’s constitutional mandate to provide a free university education to state residents “as far as practicable.”
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.”
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