Leadership & Governance

William Friday, 'Grandfather' of North Carolina System, Dies at 92

Kevin Seifert, AP Images

William Friday
October 12, 2012

William C. Friday, who, as president of the University of North Carolina system for 30 years, grappled with athletics scandals, college affordability, and free speech, died on Friday. He was 92.

Mr. Friday was a towering figure in higher education. His reputation in North Carolina, buoyed by a long-running public-television program that he hosted, transcended the halls of academe and penetrated the rural corners of the state, where many residents never even considered attending college.

"He is accurately called the grandfather for all North Carolinians, and that is the image he has across the entire state," said Molly Corbett Broad, a former president of the University of North Carolina system and now the leader of the American Council on Education. "Whether folks ever went to the university or not, they know Bill Friday, and they know of his connection to the university."

Mr. Friday had a history of heart problems and received a permanent pacemaker in May. He died at home, according to news reports, which did not list a cause of death.

Mr. Friday's avuncular demeanor and pragmatic brand of politics proved well suited for the periods of protest and prosperity that came in near equal measure for North Carolina from 1956 to 1986, when he led the system. His tenure coincided with the establishment of Research Triangle Park, a 7,000-acre development that many states have since tried to copy. An athletics scandal also proved an early test of leadership in his presidency.

In 1960, Mr. Friday was informed that players from several North Carolina universities in the Dixie Classic basketball tournament, the state's premiere sporting event, had participated in point shaving. More disturbingly, gamblers who were unsatisfied with the results of the games had threatened to kill members of the team, Mr. Friday was told.

He decided the tournament itself had to go, pressing the chancellors of participating North Carolina universities to back him on a politically unpopular decision.

"When human life is threatened, when something is out of control the way this was, there was no alternative, and we did what we were morally bound to do," Mr. Friday told UNC-TV.

A Lifelong Preoccupation

The Dixie Classic scandal gave rise to what became Mr. Friday's lifelong preoccupation with college athletics. His support for and skepticism about sports were evidenced by his central role in the creation of both the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which works to ensure that the increasingly commercial enterprise of college sports does not erode the academic mission of higher education.

Mr. Friday never seemed to hesitate to share his concerns about the commercialization of athletics. In 2010 he told The News & Observer that trustees and administrators across the country had "lost control" of their programs.

When a sports scandal hit close to home last year, Mr. Friday offered his counsel to H. Holden Thorp, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Mr. Thorp came under a barrage of criticism when he made the decision to fire Paul Hilton (Butch) Davis Jr., a popular football coach whose tenure coincided with a series of NCAA violations, including academic fraud and the paying of players, according to an NCAA investigation.

Mr. Thorp, who faced numerous controversies tied to athletics, announced in September that he would resign at the end of the academic year. During some of Mr. Thorp's darkest times, he said Mr. Friday called often.

"He was the person who said, 'Hang in there. It's always difficult when you go through these things in athletics. People support you, and you're getting through it,'" Mr. Thorp recalled.

But Mr. Friday did not conceal his disappointment in the state of affairs at Chapel Hill. Late last month, he told The Washington Post that "the University of North Carolina has suffered a humiliation unlike anything it ever had before."

"We're in a very dangerous situation, I think," he added. "We have really reached a point where there is no control, in some spots."

Late in his life, Mr. Friday seemed unsatisfied with merely serving as an elder statesman of higher education, several of his colleagues said. He pressed Mr. Thorp and other university leaders to hold the line on tuition increases, which he saw as a threat to the promise of access to postsecondary education for all North Carolinians.

W. Randolph Woodson, chancellor of North Carolina State University, said he kept a regularly scheduled monthly meeting with Mr. Friday, who at more than 90 years of age was still a valuable sounding board.

"The cost of higher education has been something really troubling to him," Mr. Woodson said.

Mr. Friday began college in 1937 at Wake Forest University, which he attended with the help of a $50 scholarship provided by his minister, according to a UNC-TV biography. In his final year, he transferred to North Carolina State, where he studied textiles. In 1948 he graduated from the University of North Carolina's law school.

Although he said he never expected to have a career in higher-education administration, Mr. Friday's tenure was a storied one that earned national accolades. In 1997, President Bill Clinton presented Mr. Friday with the National Humanities Medal for his commitment to the humanities and career in public service.

Speaker Ban

One of the central challenges of Mr. Friday's three-decade presidency emerged in 1963 with the passage of North Carolina's "speaker ban" law. The law prohibited universities from inviting speakers who were known members of the Communist Party, as well as those who advocated the overthrow of the United States Constitution or had pleaded the Fifth Amendment in any investigation concerning Communism or subversion.

In 1968 a federal court found the state's speaker ban unconstitutional, but the years leading up to the decision were extraordinarily difficult for Mr. Friday, said William A. Link, author of William Friday: Power, Purpose, and American Higher Education (University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

"It was a very tough spot because he was caught in between," said Mr. Link, a history professor at the University of Florida. "In the end, he navigated the university through successfully."

Often described as a pragmatist, Mr. Friday built his case against the ban on the premise that individual campuses should have the autonomy to make decisions about inviting speakers.

"He was trying to find a solution as opposed to making a forthright ideological statement or even a strong, forthright defense of academic freedom, although that's what he wanted to accomplish," Mr. Link said. "Depending on your point of view, you could criticize that as being insufficiently forthright on moral grounds. On the other hand, you could say that might have been a more effective way to deal with it."

One of Mr. Friday's key political strengths was that he was perceived to be apolitical, Mr. Link said. North Carolinians "had an affection for him in a way that university presidents don't enjoy," he said. "He had an above-the-fray feel."

Mr. Friday also had aspirations that seemed lofty given the resources of the state, said William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and co-chair of the Knight Commission. When Mr. Friday and other state leaders charted a course for the Research Triangle Park in the 1950s, Mr. Kirwan said, the mostly rural state of North Carolina "wasn't a natural place" for what became a development that plays host to 170 companies.

"It isn't often the case you can point to one person who's made a huge difference in the evolution and development of a state," Mr. Kirwan said. "But I feel you can certainly say that about North Carolina: It would be a very different place without Bill Friday."