William C. Friday, president emeritus of the University of North Carolina and an icon of American public higher education, died peacefully in his sleep at home on Friday, Oct. 12, 2012. The longtime Chapel Hill resident was 92.
“Bill Friday lived a life that exemplified everything that has made our University – and the state of North Carolina – great,” said UNC President Tom Ross. “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 the right thing for our students, faculty, staff, or our citizens. We have truly lost one of North Carolina’s most special treasures.”
Added UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp, “North Carolina has lost one of its most remarkable citizens in Bill Friday. His influence on public higher education in our state and across the nation is legendary. In a lifetime devoted to public service, Bill Friday was committed to providing access to high-quality, affordable higher education to North Carolina students. He was tireless in his efforts to underscore the importance of higher education to people from all walks of life, as well as to our state’s future prosperity.”
Friday, who was born in Raphine, Va., but grew up in Dallas, N.C., earned a bachelor’s degree in textile engineering from N.C. State University in 1941. He married Ida Howell a year later and served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1942 until 1946. After World War II, he entered Carolina’s law school, where he was president of the Law School Association, and graduated in 1948.
Best known to North Carolinians for his 30-year tenure as UNC president, Friday worked in several leadership positions before taking the helm of the then three-campus University in 1956. From 1948 until 1951, he was assistant dean of students at Carolina before becoming the assistant to Gordon Gray, president of the Consolidated University (then Carolina, N.C. State and Woman’s College, now UNC Greensboro).
In 1955, Friday became secretary of the University and was named acting president the following year. He was chosen to take the position permanently later in 1956 and remained until 1986, becoming the longest-serving president of the 20th century. That same year, a Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) study ranked Friday the nation’s most effective public university president.
Throughout his tenure as UNC president, Friday was a staunch supporter of academic freedom, fairness and integrity. He often served as mediator between student activists and the North Carolina General Assembly during the Civil Rights Movement, and he worked for five years to repeal the 1963 Speaker Ban Law, which made it illegal for critics of the government to appear on campus. He also oversaw the racial desegregation of the University and its expansion to include all 16 of North Carolina’s public universities.
As UNC president, Friday served on numerous state and national education boards, commissions, and committees. He chaired the National Task Force on Education for President Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter. He was president of the Association of American Universities and chaired the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the American Council on Education, and the Commission on White House Fellows. In his home state, he chaired the North Carolina Poverty Project and a governor’s literacy commission.
His involvement in the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Higher Education led to North Carolina’s gains in federal funding for student aid in Pell Grants and the establishment of Area Health Education Centers across the state.
Friday’s sphere of influence also led to the development of Research Triangle Park and state sponsorship of North Carolina public television. He was the host of “North Carolina People,” UNC-TV’s longest-running program, for more than 40 years and interviewed more than 1,500 of the state’s best writers, educators, athletes, politicians and other newsmakers. He taped his last interview earlier this year. Characteristically, he resumed conducting interviews for the show only several weeks after a hospital stay in May. When he retired as UNC president in 1986, Friday was named University professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and president and a board member of the William R. Kenan, Jr. Fund. A year later, he became executive director of the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust. He retired from the Kenan philanthropies in 1999.
With the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame, Friday served as founding co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which worked to reform college athletics. He was co-chair from 1989 to 2005.
Friday received numerous awards, including the American Council on Education’s National Distinguished Service Award for Lifetime Achievement, the James L. Fisher Award for Distinguished Service to Education from CASE, the National Humanities Medal, the American Academy for Liberal Education’s Jacques Barzun Award, the John Hope Franklin Award, the NCAA’s Gerald R. Ford Award, and the UNC Board of Governors’ University Award. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In 2004, the N.C. General Assembly held a special joint session to honor Friday’s life and works. The Legislature and then-Gov. Mike Easley presented William and Ida Friday with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine award for service to North Carolina.
Friday is one of UNC-Chapel Hill’s most prominent alumni. His Carolina honors included the William R. Davie Award, the highest recognition given by the Board of Trustees, a Distinguished Alumnus Award, an honorary doctor of laws degree and the Argonaut of the Half-Century Award from the Order of the Golden Fleece, the oldest campus honorary society. Carolina also is home to the William and Ida Friday Continuing Education Center and the William C. Friday Award for Excellence in Teaching.
He is survived by his wife, Ida, and daughters Frances and Mary. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.
Ross praised Friday’s high standards for leadership and said he was grateful for his wise counsel over the years.
“I have valued and appreciated his thoughtful perspective, his sage advice, and his insight about our state and its people,” Ross said. “His life was a remarkable testament to the notion that one person can make a lasting difference and change the world for the better. He was an inspiration to us all. I will miss him deeply.”