'It Was Just Work, and Giving Back': William C. Friday Reflects

October 12, 2012

William C. Friday believed that universities transformed lives. Whether lauding them for their pioneering medical advances or praising their capacity for inspiring social change, Mr. Friday, who died on Friday at age 92, was one of higher education's most passionate advocates. But the man who spoke in a honeyed North Carolina drawl was also one of academe's most persistent watchdogs, rarely withholding his concerns about its problems, particularly the commercialization of college sports.

In April 2010, I met with Mr. Friday at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the flagship of a system he led for 30 years. Affable and gracious, he wore a suit and tie, and sipped a Diet Coke, as we talked in a conference room in a continuing-education center that bears his name.

In that wide-ranging interview, he reflected on his lengthy career—which began in the late 1940s, just as higher education began its postwar growth spurt—and on the industry's challenges. Above all, he told me, universities must remain vibrant places for intellectual exchanges, and for contributing to a larger social good. At one point, I suggested that his views, and his long tenure in the field, made him a bit of a visionary. "No, no," he laughed. "I'm just old." Following are excerpts from our conversation:

On his wartime service, studying law at the University of North Carolina, and "giving back":

I was in the field of high explosives. We didn't have time to do anything. We were making bullets all day long and all night long. I came back to law school. A guy who sat next to me had two Navy Crosses—he'd been that much a combat fighter—and he'd bring the morning paper to class, and he'd sit there and shred it. He wasn't even aware of the fact that his tension was so great still.

We weren't anybody's heroes. We knew there were men we'd been with who were buried over there in Europe. And here we were. In my class, one became chancellor of the university here; another became a senior federal judge in the Fourth Circuit; two more became chairmen of the university board. That was our little study group, but this was true all over the state. It was true everywhere.

It was a sense of being some way accountable to the country. We got back all right. We'd seen a lot in the world. We'd seen a lot of destruction. What are we going to do to straighten things out? There was no hero complex in it. It was just work, and giving back. Every single one of us felt some sense of moral accountability.

On social change in the 1960s:

The public university became the focus of the attention, the focus of action, the focus of change. [At the University of North Carolina,] we did not burn a building. We did not fire a shot. We stayed on the course. Now why was that true? There was a long tradition here of freedom of discussion and freedom of speech. Everybody knew what the students were going to do here: They were going to act responsibly. They weren't going to tear something up.

We had a meeting out on the main courtyard there—about 5,000 students. It ran four hours. We had a very hot debate. And all of a sudden, people went home. That's what a university is for. You're not a place to engage in warfare. People get intense, but it's the intellectual exchange, the debate, and the freedom to do it.

On the commercialization of college sports:

My fundamental argument in all this business about intercollegiate sports has been the integrity of the university itself. Are we what we say we are? We're conducting programs where there are two admissions standards, we have two salary schedules, we treat athletes quite differently than we do regular students.

We've turned ourselves over to the television people, to the rabid sports fans, and people who are good sports fans that just don't understand the consequences. But you cannot be paying people $4- and $5-million, and you cannot let your institution be the farm club—as we're seeing now, without a doubt—for the NBA. That's all you are. You're the farm club of the NBA. You're not a university.

That's what worries me. I don't think a university's credibility is maneuverable, negotiable, or in any way subject to marketing. You have it, or you don't.

On universities as "the people's institution":

Universities in the United States—well, we can't live without them. They're so essential now to the progress of this country. And that leads to the problem of how much politics can get into education. This is a very dangerous thing, when you have a price being asked for support. Because if there's one thing American universities have got to demonstrate to the whole world, it's that they are free—they're free for really intensive intellectual debate, for innovation, for the new idea, the controversial idea, the freedom to say these things. All of these are elements of what makes a university truly great. A public university ought to abide by one very firm rule: That it is of the political process, but never in it. You are the people's institution.