By dying on October 12, the 219th anniversary of the university’s founding, UNC President Emeritus William Friday once again turned a seeming defeat into a victory.
It was, some were saying, just like Presidents Jefferson and Adams, dying on the same day, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the nation’s founding.
Friday’s death leaves the state with a vacancy in the role he played as the state’s public elder who was wise and energetic, our trusted prophet and pastor.
Friday did not become our state’s prophet by divine ordination. He earned it through hard years of bruising struggles in the public arena. He did not always win, but he had an amazing ability to do two things: (1) turn apparent defeats into important and lasting victories, and (2) after even the bitterest battle, reach out and turn his opponents into friends and allies in common endeavors.
Here are some examples:
1. The 1961 crackdown on athletics. Some hard-core athletic fans may not have forgiven Friday for cancelling the Dixie Classic basketball tournament after several N.C. State players were implicated in a point-shaving scandal. Friday’s controversial decision signaled that no matter how popular and profitable university athletics may be, they cannot be allowed to corrupt or supplant the university’s mission of education and service. Friday’s action also gave notice of his decisiveness and resolve.
2. The Speaker Ban Law of 1963. For all his friendships and political savvy, Friday was unable to stop the General Assembly from enacting the law that prohibited “known members” of the Communist Party from speaking on university campuses. Nor was he able to persuade the state’s leadership to make a quick turnaround. But, in the end, his behind-the-scenes maneuvering helped bring down the law, leaving a widespread consensus on the value of free speech.
3. The 1971 merger of all the state’s public colleges and universities into the University of North Carolina. People forget that bringing campuses into one state agency was not Friday’s idea. In fact, he and his board fought against it. But when the decision was made, Friday demanded excellence and provided the strong leadership that made our multi-campus state university the envy of every state in the union. His actions in taking charge after the restructuring showed an effective administrative style. According to his biographer, William Link, “That style embodied the qualities of Friday’s personality: gregariousness and sensitivity, idealism and cold-hearted efficiency, and unassuming accessibility and constant communication with the state and national power structure. Friday had an innate interest in people and an inherent ability to relate to them.”
4. The establishment of a medical school at East Carolina University. Friday initially fought a new medical school there, but when he recognized its inevitability, according to Link, he determined to make it “as fine a school as you can make it.” While pushing for adequate funding for ECU’s medical school, he used the legislature’s enhanced attention to health education to fund expansion of the Chapel Hill medical school and the establishment of “the most ambitious AHEC (Area Health and Education Centers) program in the nation.” Link writes that the ECU controversy demonstrated “Friday’s ability to adapt to new circumstances.”
5. The long controversy with the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare over desegregation. Almost forgotten today, Link writes, “Managing the desegregation controversy became the greatest challenge of Bill Friday’s leadership and certainly one of the gravest tests the University of North Carolina had encountered in its two centuries of existence.”
Once again, Friday’s resiliency in responding to what could be characterized as a series of defeats, resulted in strengthening the university and solidifying his reputation for steady leadership.