Chapel Hill, N.C. — William C. "Bill" Friday, who shepherded the University of North Carolina system through three decades of tumultuous change and rapid growth as one of the nation's longest-serving university presidents, died peacefully in his sleep Friday morning at age 92, according to his assistant, Virginia Taylor.
Funeral arrangements haven't been announced.
Remembrances poured in on social media, including Facebook and Twitter, with many noting that Friday died on University Day – the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's 219th birthday.
“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.”
Friday led the UNC system from 1956 to 1986, a period that included desegregation, challenges to free speech and the creation of a 16-campus state university system. Enrollment began to surge during his tenure, setting the stage for major expansions and battles over tuition increases in the years since he retired.
"He is the greatest man of our generation," said former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, who credited Friday with transforming the entire state, not just its university system.
Businesses were attracted to North Carolina because the offered a premier higher education system, Hunt said, and the jobs they brought changed the state's economy and demographics.
"He was one of my closest partners in building North Carolina," he said. "He has been, I would say, the biggest reason for our growth and progress."
Gov. Beverly Perdue ordered that flags at all state facilities be lowered to half-staff in Friday's honor.
"There have been few figures more important in the recent history of colleges and universities than Bill Friday," biographer William Link wrote in the introduction to his book, "William Friday: Power, Purpose & American Higher Education."
"(His) life serves as a metaphor for the tangled history of the university and the state since the Great Depression," Link wrote.
"It was not an easy time to be here, but it was quite a challenge," Friday said in a 1999 interview. "We had to make it work because the state wanted it to work. It was the only way we could guarantee access to higher education in a way that the state deserved to have."
Quick rise to top
Born in Virginia, Friday grew up in the Gaston County town of Dallas, where his father was an accountant for local textile mills. He dreamed as a boy of being major league baseball catcher, but he wound up earning a degree in textile engineering from North Carolina State University, then known as State College.
Within a year of graduating, he had married his college sweetheart, Ida Howell, and had enlisted in the Navy, spending World War II overseeing a munitions depot in Norfolk, Va. After the war, he earned a law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Through connections he made at N.C. State, Friday became assistant dean of students in Chapel Hill immediately after graduating from law school in 1948. Three years later, UNC President Gordon Gray made him his top assistant, and Friday assumed the presidency in 1956, when Gray was appointed to a position in the Department of Defense.
"It was one of those strokes of good luck," Friday said of his rapid ascendancy, noting other top UNC officials took on other duties around the same time and couldn't assume the president's office.
One of Friday's first crises as president was a point-shaving scandal in the 1961 Dixie Classic, a basketball tournament whose popularity rivaled today's Atlantic Coast Conference tournaments. Gamblers had threatened some players, so Friday and other school administrators decided to cancel the event out of concern for the safety of the students and the reputation of the university.
"The Dixie Classic was an unspeakably harsh experience for all of us," he said in a 2006 interview. "In its day, it was the Final Four. It was the biggest tournament in college basketball in those days."
Friday then faced off against state lawmakers over the 1963 adoption of the Speaker Ban, which barred people critical of the government, including communists, from speaking publicly on campus. He lobbied against its passage and sued the state to get the law repealed five years later.
"I always felt that freedom is the basic lesson you have to teach every student," he said. "No self-respecting university can call itself a first rate educational institution without the right of free expression."
His support of free speech was quickly challenged, as members of the Black Student Movement presented a list of demands to UNC administrators and staged a sit-in. State troopers were sent to the Chapel Hill campus to end the incident, setting off a confrontation between Friday and then-Gov. Bob Scott.
Creating the UNC system
When Friday took charge of UNC, the university system included campuses in Chapel Hill, Raleigh (State College) and Greensboro (Women's College). Campuses in Charlotte, Wilmington and Asheville were added in the late 1960s, and the General Assembly voted in 1971 to unify all state-funded universities under the UNC umbrella, creating a 16-campus system.
The new system meant Friday had to balance the budget, curriculum and policy needs of the various campuses and defuse the personal agendas of the 16 chancellors and the lawmakers who supported different schools.
"Friday's unique leadership and contributions arose from a native intelligence, an innate political ability, an informal and non-bureaucratic style and, perhaps above all, a simultaneously gregarious and sensitive personality, " Link wrote in his book. "By virtue of his management style, which was personal and usually most effective in behind-the-scenes consultations, Friday often appeared in the background of the flow of events even when he was centrally involved."
Five of the new campuses were historically black colleges, so Friday also worked for more than a decade to integrate all 16 campuses while helping the former all-black campuses maintain their sense of culture.
"That was 11 years of a controversy that should have never have taken place in the first place," he said later.
Amid his work to unify and desegregate the university system in 1971, Friday launched a weekly public television talk show. "North Carolina People" became one of the longest-running series on UNC-TV, featuring conversations with thinkers, writers, politicians, educators, athletes, entertainers and other newsmakers from across the state.
"We have never been a wealthy state. We have never been a state that was self-aggrandizing and all kinds of things. But what is so wonderful here is that we have an atmosphere of open and free discussion," Friday said in a 1999 interview. "People in the mountains are quite different from people out at the coast. But, gosh, you can enjoy them."
Friday started the 42nd season of North Carolina People in July. During the lengthy run, he produced nearly 2,000 shows and interviewed more than 4,000 people.
"The legacy that he leaves by the interviews he conducted is really priceless," said Shannon Vickery, production director of UNC-TV. "He saw the television audience as his friends and neighbors, and he wanted to make sure to share with as many people as possible through television the ideas of North Carolinians, the different perspectives (and) the great things that were going on in communities across the state."
Reynolds Price, the late author and Duke University professor, said Friday's genial and inquisitive manner made the TV show special.
"He has a phenomenal memory and a wide range of references. He’s a watchful person, who sees and knows a good deal," Price said. "I tell my students that Friday’s a brilliant reporter because he is constantly reading, observing and thinking."
Former Gov. Mike Easley appeared on Friday's show annually for 16 years. He said the interview was conducted in a unique way.
"He asked questions in such a way that the context and premise of his question told a story in and of itself," Easley said. "He was telling a story with the question, and then you would expand on it with the answer. That was, I think, a real art."
Life after UNC
Friday retired as UNC president in 1986 after reaching the state's mandatory retirement age, but he didn't slow down. He continued working to improve U.S. higher education on the Carnegie Commission on the Future of American Education and the White House Task Force on Education.
As president of the William R. Kenan Jr. Fund, he expanded the philanthropy's focus to boost literacy and help single mothers and others gain their high school equivalency to obtain better-paying jobs.
In 1989, he and former University of Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh were named the founding co-chairmen of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Under their leadership, the commission pushed for more control of athletics by university presidents, rigorous academic standards for athletes and certifying athletic departments that run their sports programs in a fiscally responsible, equitable and ethical manner.
Friday stepped down from the Knight Commission in 2005, and the NCAA presented him with the Gerald R. Ford Award for his leadership and advocacy.
“Bill Friday has been a prominent and important figure in public affairs for many years and his career has had a major impact on higher education over the past 60 years,” then-NCAA President Myles Brand said in announcing the award.
Liz Clarke, a reporter with The Washington Post, interviewed Friday about a week before his death and discussed the problems that continue to plague college sports. The agent and academic fraud scandals involving the UNC-Chapel Hill football team undoubtedly broke his heart, she said, yet he remained optimistic.
"I see a change," Clarke quoted Friday as saying. "North Carolina is going to set an example for the rest of the nation in how to raise standards and uphold standards."
Even in his final years, Friday's name carried clout in the UNC system. He joined several former members of the UNC Board of Governors in 2011 to lobby against what they saw as excessive tuition increases. Several campuses asked to raise tuition by double-digit percentages over several years, which Friday and the other said violated North Carolina's constitutional guarantee to keep higher education as affordable as possible.
His influence on North Carolina education also has been cast in bricks and mortar. A middle school in his hometown of Dallas is named in his honor, as are the William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at N.C. State and the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education at UNC-Chapel Hill.
"I think the university experience ... is to hope you keep saying to yourself, 'I want to make a difference.' That is what we're here for, to contribute," Friday said in 1999 interview.