William Friday died last week at the age of 92. His death was not only fittingly on a Friday, but also on University Day, which commemorates the founding of the University of North Carolina—the nation’s oldest public college—223 years ago.
His death on such a date is reminiscent (though on a smaller scale) of the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826. As they were architects of the nation, he was the architect of the modern University of North Carolina system, the leader who most influenced the system to become what it is today, and who guided it through several major transitions.
When Friday became president in 1956, the system had three schools and only 15,000 students. When he retired, there were 125,000. (Today there are approximately 220,000). Even though the era of growth is coming to an end and cracks may be starting to appear in the edifice he built, his shadow looms large over higher education in North Carolina and will for years to come.
The consolidation of 1971 was probably the major event in his history as president. The basic structure of the university system has not changed since then, when he oversaw an expansion from three schools to 16 (today there are 17 campuses, including a high school).
He is also known nationally for battling—perhaps somewhat Don Quixote-like—against the corrupting forces of big-time college sports. In 1961, disgusted by N.C. State’s and UNC-Chapel Hill’s participation in a point-shaving scandal, he ended the popular Dixie Classic basketball tournament.
He was also the founding co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, and as recently as this month he was interviewed by the Washington Post for his views on the athletic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Friday also oversaw the desegregation of the UNC system. In 1955, when he took over, the system was segregated and virtually all white; today white students are only 62 percent of the student body. While the federal Health, Education, and Welfare Department wanted UNC to eliminate duplicate programs at historically black and white schools, Friday fought the HEW plan for a decade. He instead permitted the HBCUs to thrive independently as black majority schools. Today, five of the campuses are historically black colleges and universities; a sixth, UNC-Pembroke, started as a school for Native Americans but black students are now the most numerous on campus.
Another controversy often identified with Friday concerned freedom of speech. After failing to stop passage of the 1963 “Speaker Ban” law that prohibited communists and those who had pled the Fifth Amendment from speaking on public campuses, Friday convinced the state’s legislature to amend it. He continued to fight for its repeal, and the ban was eventually overturned in court.
Friday’s association with the University of North Carolina system began in 1939 as a student at North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering, now North Carolina State University. Except for a few months as a textile engineer and three years in the Army during World War II, he spent the rest of his life connected to the university system, first as a law student, then in various administrative positions, including 30 years as president, and finally, as host of a talk show on UNC-TV called North Carolina People.
In 1955 he ascended to the UNC system’s top job on an interim basis and remained in the job of system president until 1986. Even after retirement, he stayed extraordinarily active until the end, serving the system in various advisory capacities.
In some respects, Friday’s death marks the end of an era of extraordinary growth. The consolidation that created a vastly expanded UNC in 1971 wasn’t unique to North Carolina. The nationwide consolidation of the 1970s stemmed from the fast-growing enrollment in postsecondary education following World War II. Small branch campuses, teachers’ colleges, and two-year schools were becoming bigger and wanted to be treated as full-fledged universities. They had begun going to legislatures for expansion funds.
In North Carolina, that lobbying sparked the proposal for consolidation—let the schools work out their interests and settle their conflicts first, and then go with a united front to the legislature. The change meant that the flagship universities, especially UNC-Chapel Hill, had to become just one among the rest—a “greatest among equals.” That undoubtedly took some time to get used to (similarly, when consolidation occurred in Wisconsin, it was hard for the University of Wisconsin to become a mere UW-Madison). While Friday did not originally favor the expansion, he felt that if it went through, it had to have strong governance at the center.
The major compromise leading to the merger was the creation of an unwieldy and rather strangely elected board of governors (half are voted on by the Senate, half by the House). Thirty-two governors, it seems—more than any management expert would consider efficient—were needed to ensure full representation of all the schools. Today, nearly all the schools have at least one governor to look out for their interests.
The united front approach generally worked well for the schools, especially for smaller ones, during an era of material wealth and broad consensus that state support of higher education was a high priority for taxpayer money. But that consensus is breaking down, now that the funds are not flowing the way they used to.
And that might mean greater differentiation in the near future. Friday was a strong supporter of each school maintaining its independence within the system, even though he favored centralized governance. But that independence, along with support in the legislature, has encouraged every school to try to be a major university, in competition with the other schools. In an era of tighter budgets, that independence may not continue.
No matter what changes come in the future, Friday’s stamp will remain visible for a long time. And no matter what one’s perspective regarding specific policies, he exemplified principled leadership for most of a century.
More than forty years after the consolidation, when recommendations for structural change to the Board of Governors were being made, William Friday told the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research that “structure is not the issue. The problem is leadership, management, insight and courage.” In retrospect, structure may have been more important than he thought, but clearly Friday exemplified those qualities of leadership, management, insight, and courage.