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How to pay debt of gratitude to Bill Friday

He set an unparalleled example the state would do well to follow

By Jack Betts
Special to the Observer

In the heat of a fractious and uncivil era in national and state politics and public discourse, we risk losing sight of the example and leadership of one of the most civil and focused public servants in America. He was William Clyde “Bill” Friday, who died at age 92 in Chapel Hill Friday morning.

His exhortations for North Carolina to do the right things by its educational institutions, its elderly and its young, its environment, its infrastructure and its once-vibrant economy have fallen lately on the deaf ears of policymakers more interested in scoring points, cutting budgets and controlling politics than in making needed public investments in education at all levels.

Yet for nearly half of the 20th century, Bill Friday was the conscience of North Carolina, a World War II veteran and graduate of its two leading public universities – N.C. State as an undergraduate and UNC as a law student – before pursuing the career that would make him for decades one of the key figures in American higher education.

The president of the American Council on Education, Robert Atwell, once described Friday and Notre Dame University President the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh as “the two towering giants among the leaders of higher education in this country.” In their retirement years, Friday and Hesburgh would co-found the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics to press for university control of college sports.

But first Friday had to show he was ready to run the University of North Carolina. It would not come easy. As the 35-year-old interim president of a university system in a state grappling with the challenges of school integration and demands for broader civil rights, appallingly low household incomes and an economy built on industries of an earlier era, Friday demanded and got the power he knew he needed to run the university system without crippling political interference.

Even so, he made mistakes. When athletics scandals first cropped up, he said, he “threw a bucket of whitewash” at the problem and hoped it would go away. It didn’t, and when it persisted he abruptly cancelled the most popular holiday college basketball tournament in the land, the Dixie Classic in Raleigh. In doing so he made it clear that academics would control athletics in the university system, and not the other way around. It was a lesson that has been ignored at considerable cost.

His swift and deft response to challenges would show itself in years to come in his handling of the growth of the UNC system, a legislative challenge to university autonomy in the notorious Speaker Ban episode of the 1960s and his calm but forceful resistance to the federal government’s overreaching threat to cut funding for public universities in the state if they did not move faster to remove the vestiges of the once-segregated university campuses.

Friday had not sought the further consolidation of the universities into the single system legislators approved in the early 1970s, but as his biographer William Link has pointed out, his genius was in taking a legislative mandate and not only making it work, but turning it into a model system where each campus’s strengths and traditions were upheld and where each had the opportunity to grow in dramatic ways.

And when the Carter administration began to seek the transfer of entire programs and schools from one campus to another, Friday argued government had no business proposing to use that tool to change enrollment patterns and enhance historically black campuses.

At heart, though, Friday was a teacher. He mentored generations of state business leaders, political figures and journalists, speaking frequently with community and state thought leaders, offering counsel, urging practical approaches to problem solving, continually prodding policymakers to build the state up and avoid actions that would get in the way of progress.

Friday served for 30 years as president of the University of North Carolina system, presiding over huge increases in enrollment and budgets, before retiring in 1986. The UNC system has since had a number of effective leaders, but the system has not enjoyed the same close relationship Friday cultivated with state legislators. Yet Friday continued to campaign for support of the university system, arguing persuasively that the significant improvement in the cultural, financial and social environment of the state was largely a result of substantial public investments in the university system over nearly half a century.

He also continued to speak to power and to ordinary people about the need to follow the best of the state’s traditions in providing for the public good. His example and his message mirrored what has long been admirable about the state, and those who now hold decision-making power about our future should take time to reflect on the wisdom and sound judgment that is Bill Friday’s lasting legacy. North Carolinians owe him a debt of gratitude that can best be repaid by continuing to mark his words and follow the leadership he gave us so well for so long.

Jack Betts retired from the Observer editorial board in 2011. He covered Bill Friday for more than 40 years.
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