CHAPEL HILL - William Friday, a North Carolina icon and retired president of the University of North Carolina system, has died at the age of 92.
He passed away today, on the 219th birthday of the University of North Carolina. In Chapel Hill, at the University Day convocation, a moment of silence was held for Friday. A thousand mixed flowers were ordered so that those attending could place a bloom at the Old Well in his memory.
“President Friday was the most significant educator in North Carolina in the 20th century,” said C.D. Spangler, Jr., who succeeded Friday as president and who spoke with his friend weekly. “He has been a remarkable individual, and he’s been one of my personal heroes for many, many years.
“Bill Friday had friends everywhere. Almost everyone in the state of North Carolina knew Bill Friday and claimed that they had, at one time or another, talked to him.”
Besides being a revered figure in the Tar Heel state, Friday was an influential leader in U.S. higher education and one of the longest serving university presidents.
Before retiring in 1986, Friday served three decades at the helm of the UNC system during a period of rapid change. On his watch, the university system expanded from three campuses to six and finally to 16. Enrollment jumped from nearly 15,000 students to 125,500, and the annual state budget swelled from $40.7 million to $1.5 billion.
“Bill Friday lived a life that exemplified everything that has made our university – and the state of North Carolina – great,” UNC President Tom Ross said in a statement. “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 what was right thing for our students, faculty, staff, or our citizens. We have truly lost one of North Carolina’s most special treasures.”
He was instrumental in the creation of the Atlantic Coast Conference for athletics and the development of Research Triangle Park. He became a critic of the influence of big money on college sports as a co-founder of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
Friday was a staunch believer in the power of education to lift people from poverty and make them good citizens, and a crusader for state support for universities and making them affordable for families.
In a 2010 interview with The News & Observer to mark his 90th birthday, Friday said the cost of college is a major issue for UNC students of today. “The strength of this place has been that every child in North Carolina could dream of going to one of these institutions, if they did their work,” he said. “Now, the cost is eroding that dramatically.”
Born in Raphine, Va., Friday was raised in the tiny town of Dallas near Gastonia. He earned a degree in textile engineering from N.C. State University in 1941 before serving in World War II. After the war, he went to law school at the University of North Carolina, graduating in 1948.
He didn’t practice law, though. He was an assistant dean of students at UNC and after three years became the assistant to Gordon Gray, the president of what was then called the Consolidated University, which included the Chapel Hill campus, N.C. State and Woman’s College, now called UNC Greensboro.
Friday was named secretary of the university in 1955 and became president a year later.
He would serve in that role for 30 years, and eventually was singled out as the nation’s most effective public university president by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
With a steady hand, gracious style, calm demeanor and impeccable political skills, Friday guided the university through tremendous growth and transformation.
Friday stood up for academic freedom and free speech. During the Civil Rights era, he calmed the waters, as universities around the United States were caught between student protesters and government leaders who demanded a crackdown.
He worked to repeal the 1963 Speaker Ban Law, which prohibited communists and government critics from speaking on campus. He also played a pivotal role in the desegregation of UNC and was sometimes at odds with the federal government about how that should unfold.
Friday said the university had hung on to its independence through social and political turmoil during his tenure.
“If I had to single out the one accomplishment that we’ve all done together, it is that we’ve kept the university free,” he told The News & Observer in 1986 upon his retirement. “It is not beholden in any way to any political or structured kind of relationship...That’s because, while the university is in the political process, it is not of it, and I’ve worked very hard to keep it that way. The university stands there today completely capable of examining any controversial question, dealing with any great social issue, working to improve the state and all of its people.”
Decades after he stepped down, he was a sounding board for decision-makers on the issues of the day. University leaders would visit his living room to seek counsel before a big decision.
Recently, Friday was asked to serve on a blue-ribbon advisory committee that’s working on a five-year strategy for the UNC system. He was said to be excited at the prospect, but was unable to attend the first meeting of the panel.
Just last week, the Washington Post published an interview with Friday, who talked about the dangerous compromises in college sports. He was blunt about the academic and athletic scandal that had enveloped his university.
“The University of North Carolina has suffered a humiliation unlike anything it ever had before,” he told the Post.
Yet he wasn’t ready to give up on reform.
“There are thousands of alumni who look upon what happened with serious concern,” he said in the interview. “And I don’t believe they’re going to tolerate it.... People don’t want their lifetimes to be measured by how much their football team won or lost. There is something valuable they want to have written on that intellectual tombstone when the time comes. And it will come.”
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp, who has dealt with two years of turmoil surrounding athletics, issued a statement today about Friday’s passing.
“His influence on public higher education in our state and across the nation is legendary,” Thorp said. “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.”
Friday’s health had declined in recent years, but he kept a remarkably busy schedule. In 2008, he suffered a minor heart attack, and in 2009, he had surgery to replace a heart valve. He was hospitalized in critical condition in May, when he received permanent pacemaker.
But not too long after leaving the hospital, he resumed his weekly UNC-TV talk show, “North Carolina People,” as he had done since 1971. Many newcomers to North Carolina knew him as the dignified Southern gentleman who hosted the show and interviewed 1,500 of the state’s best writers, educators, athletes, politicians and other leaders.
He died peacefully in his sleep this morning, said his assistant, Virginia Taylor, but on Thursday had spent time sorting through some old photographs from his office.
Gov. Bev Perdue ordered state flags lowered to half staff.
She called Friday a true renaissance man.
“His dedication and service to North Carolina and monumental impact on our state cannot be overstated,” she said in a statement. “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.”
He is survived by his wife, Ida, and daughters Frances and Mary. Funeral arrangements are incomplete, but a public memorial service will be held sometime next week.