William Friday, educator and reformer


William Friday, who died at 92, stands during the inauguration of Tom Ross as the 17th president of the UNC System. (David Wilson/AP)
October 12, 2012

William Friday, who became one of the country’s most respected educators during his 30 years as president of the University of North Carolina system, and who led a commission that sought to bring reforms to college sports, died Oct. 12 at his home in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was 92.

The university announced his death. Mr. Friday had suffered a mild heart attack in 2008 and had openheart surgery the following year. He was hospitalized this summer to have a permanent pacemaker placed. But he remained actively engaged with academic life until his death.

Mr. Friday was named interim president of the UNC system in 1956 and expected to hold the job “no more than a few months,” he said at the time. He served as UNC president until 1986.

“President Friday was the most signficant educator in North Carolina in the 20th century,” C.D. Spangler Jr., who succeeded Mr. Friday as president, told the News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C.

Mr. Friday increased the number of campuses in the UNC system from three to 16, as enrollment increased almost tenfold to more than 125,000.

“Bill Friday was one of the shapers of this modern, multi-campus system,” William Link, author of a 1997 biography of Mr. Friday, told the Associated Press. “He was the person who kind of consolidated things and built the system the way it is now. It’s gone through a lot of changes, but it’s Bill Friday’s university in a lot of ways.”

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Mr. Friday helped the university steer clear of racial strife, and he oversaw the desegregation of the state university campuses. He was also considered a champion of academic freedom and free speech who worked to repeal a speaker ban, which prohibited known communists and other controversial figures from appearing at university forums.

Mr. Friday became one of North Carolina’s most revered citizens, fostering a tolerant, progressive academic community within the universitysystem. One of his goals was to make education as affordable as possible, enabling people from all races and walks of life to attend a state university.

“He loved students,” Link said. “He was very much on the ground and in person. He was very unlike the kind of university presidents we have now, who are CEO types and no one has access. Bill Friday, everyone had access to. But he managed it in a very cool way.”

Mr. Friday helped devise the Atlantic Coast Conference, an athletic conference of mostly southern universities that became known as a basketball hotbed. Later, he criticized the presence of big money in college sports and the corruption that often resulted.

He was the founding co-chairman in 1989 of the Knight Commission, a privately funded panel that seeks to institute reforms in college athletics and exert more institutional control over sports programs.

In a Washington Post interview last week, Mr. Friday lamented the presence of scandals at UNC’s flagship campus in Chapel Hill, which had led to the resignations of the football coach and athletic director in the past two years.

“The University of North Carolina has suffered a humiliation unlike anything it ever had before,” he told The Post. “We’re in a very dangerous situation, I think. We have really reached a point where there is no control, in some spots.”

One of Mr. Friday’s most diplomatic achievements was his ability to keep the university largely above political infighting in his state. Despite the perceived liberal-mindedness of some of its professors and students in a state known for its conservative traditions, the university was a source of pride for people of all political stripes.

“It’s not beholden in any way to any political or structured kind of relationship,” Mr. Friday told the News & Observer in 1986. “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 univesity 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.”

William Clyde Friday was born July 13, 1920, in Raphine, Va., and grew up in Dallas, N.C. He graduated in 1941 from North Carolina State University with a bachelor’s degree in textile engineering.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, he received a law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1948. He then became a dean on the Chapel Hill campus and, later, an assistant to then-university president Gordon Gray.

There were often rumors that Mr. Friday might run for office, but he never did, largely because he didn’t want the university embroiled in partisan politics.

After retiring from the UNC presidency in 1986, he served as president of the William R. Kenan Jr. Fund and later as director of an affiliated philanthropical group.

He maintained a long association with the Knight Commission and had interviewed more than 1,500 people as the host of “North Carolina People,” a weekly public television show that premiered in 1971.

Survivors include his wife of 70 years, Ida Friday; and two daughters.

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