For the second time within less than a year the people of North Carolina have turned from their customary preoccupations -- tobacco, basketball and politics -- to pay tribute to a retiring educator of exceptional distinction. Last summer the object of their praise was Terry Sanford, who left the presidency of Duke University after leading it into the first rank of American universities. Now the spotlight has turned to William C. Friday, who shortly will be retiring after 30 years as president of the University of North Carolina.

Bill Friday is one of the most prominent and respected citizens of his home state -- perhaps, indeed, the most prominent and respected -- but outside its borders he is well known only among educators. This is a pity, because a good case can be made that he is one of the three or four most influential figures in postwar American higher education, but it also reflects the nature of the man. Friday is a leader in every sense of the word, yet he is in no respect a seeker of publicity; he has never craved fame or celebrity, for which he certainly deserves respect, but the unfortunate side effect is that he has been denied the large reputation he so clearly has earned.

So let a few words be said on behalf of this strong, quiet man, and let it be acknowledged that they are far from objective. Though I have nothing more than a friendly acquaintance with Friday and have not seen him for more than a dozen years, our paths crossed at a crucial time in my life: Friday was sworn in as president at North Carolina in the spring of 1957, and I entered that institution as a freshman four months later. As I became active in student journalism I had occasional dealings with him; we did not always agree, but his candor and honesty were impressive even to a rebellious 20-year-old.

Incredibly enough, this new president of a major university was, when I enrolled, barely 37 years old. His youth, not surprisingly, provoked skepticism within the Chapel Hill academic community at the time of his appointment, but it was by no means the principal objection to him. Many were unhappy that he was an alumnus not of Chapel Hill but of North Carolina State, and that he had majored in (!) textile engineering. Even worse, in the eyes of academics, his background was not in the classroom but in the administrative offices, where he had started as assistant dean of students and risen to assistant to the president. He was an unknown quantity, and there was genuine concern about his capacity to handle the job.

The job was, to be sure, far smaller then than it is now. Friday's domain included only one university -- Chapel Hill, with about 4,500 undergraduates -- and two colleges, North Carolina State in Raleigh and Women's College in Greensboro. But that domain was on the verge of radical growth; it soon fell to Friday, who can hardly have bargained for such an assignment, to preside over this growth and to keep it orderly. During his administration the North Carolina system of public higher education set an example for the rest of the country in how to meet the demand for expansion without sacrificing education to mere numbers; the Consolidated University of North Carolina is generally acknowledged as the model for other state systems, and it is a model that Bill Friday built.

He did so not out of a desire to expand his empire -- quite to the contrary, if truth be known -- but out of accommodation to political realities. Throughout the state local interests assembled themselves around local colleges and demanded that these be granted instant "university" status. Some bloody political battles were fought, especially the one involving East Carolina College, and Friday did not win them all. But he won the war. No rival public university was established. All four-year colleges and the School of the Arts were brought into the Consolidated University, which now has 16 campuses, 125,000 students and an annual budget of more than $1 billion.

The numbers are impressive, but numbers scarcely tell the story of Bill Friday's three decades. What really counts is that this nonacademic president over and again stood up for the integrity of the scholarly community as few presidents of any other universities have done. There are many examples, but in my judgment three stand out:

*In 1961 the basketball program at Chapel Hill was touched by a point-shaving scandal. Friday's response was immediate and vigorous: He canceled the hugely popular Dixie Classic tournament, for which UNC and State were hosts, because it provided a particularly juicy target for gamblers. Basketball fans were furious and the attacks on Friday were venomous, but he did not change his mind.

*In 1963 the North Carolina legislature passed an especially odious bill, the "speaker ban," which prohibited "communists" from speaking on state-supported campuses. The bill was red meat for the state's numerous conservatives, who were amply represented at the legislature in Raleigh, but Friday fought it from the outset as an infringement on academic freedom and free speech. He carried on the fight for years, in the process putting himself at odds with legislators who controlled the budget of his university, until at last the legislature managed to devise a graceful way out of the mess it had created.

*In 1974 the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare attempted to impose a rigid desegregation plan on the Consolidated University. Friday fought the plan for seven years; the issue was not desegregation, which he strongly supported, but the right of the academic community to decide what it would and would not teach, on which campuses certain courses would be offered, and who the teachers would be. Though outsiders attempted to depict Friday as an opponent of racial justice, the truth is that he was, again, defending academic freedom; and again he won, though the fight was long, bitter and exhausting.

So the young man who came to the presidency by way of textile engineering and law school ended up being the best friend the scholarly community could have asked for. That is reason enough to celebrate Friday as he prepares to step down, but there is even more. His has been a career of genuine, selfless public service. The interests he has served are those of his state and his university, not his own. Unlike so many people now running colleges and universities, he has never sought to use his position to advance a private "agenda" -- to move himself into a more lucrative and prominent appointment, to make a media celebrity of himself. Instead he has worked quietly, patiently, devotedly -- and, when the occasion called for it, forcefully -- to give the people of North Carolina the best public university their resources can support; if anything, he leaves them with an even better university than they can reasonably have hoped for.