Friday, Higher Ed Icon, Dies

William C. Friday, founding president of the University of North Carolina system, was in many ways the prototypical higher education leader.

October 15, 2012

William C. Friday, the founding president of the University of North Carolina system who became a national higher education icon in the process, died Friday at the age of 92. His imprint on his state and the higher ed enterprise alike was deep and broad.

When observers assert that today's crop of college presidents are not the public intellectuals or national statesmen (or women) that some of their predecessors were, Friday and peers like Clark Kerr of the University of California and the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh of the University of Notre Dame are who they have in mind. He almost certainly could have been governor or U.S. senator in the Tar Heel State, but legend has it that he told one such suitor that he could have a bigger impact on North Carolinians as president of the university system than he could as a politician.

And to judge from the tributes and encomiums that have poured out in news articles and statements in the days since he died, it'd be hard to argue otherwise. (Here are two, from former colleagues and national higher education leaders including Molly Corbett Broad of the American Council on Education and Holden Thorp of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.) Almost everyone who has been around higher education for a while, especially in North Carolina but nationally, too, has a Bill Friday story, and it's as likely as not to involve a kindness or a way in which Friday made them feel like they were the most important person on earth.

He is best-known for helping to shape the system of North Carolina universities that has become in many ways a model for excellence and collaboration in public higher education, as president of the UNC system from 1956 to 1986. During that time, he grappled with many of the most significant issues that faced higher education then and now. He oversaw the desegregation of North Carolina's public universities (the focus of this New York Times obituary), battled to allow free speech on the state's campuses, and famously killed a popular local basketball tournament amid corruption, spurring a lifelong (and arguably losing) effort in which he sought to control the commercialization of big-time college sports.

That led him to co-found (with Father Hesburgh) the Knight Foundation's Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, one of the many ways in which he continued to influence higher education and his state in the 25-plus years since he left the North Carolina presidency. He remained a highly visible presence in North Carolina through the weekly television interview show, "North Carolina People," that he started as president and continued through this fall.

For an appreciation of Friday by someone who worked with and knew him well, see Art Padilla's essay elsewhere on Inside Higher Ed.

And for those interested in digging deeper in Friday's life and work, the University of North Carolina Press is making the full text of William Link's biography of Friday, William Friday: Power, Purpose, and American Higher Education, available free on its website. The link is here.


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