Former UNC -Chapel Hill Chancellor William Aycock dies

William Brantley Aycock was chancellor from 1957 to 1964.
William Brantley Aycock was chancellor from 1957 to 1964. NC Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC

Former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor William Brantley Aycock, remembered for his public opposition to a state ban on Communist speakers on campus and for hiring Dean Smith as basketball coach in the wake of a point-shaving scandal, died Saturday at the Carolina Meadows retirement community in Chapel Hill. He was 99.

Aycock, a Johnston County native, was a child of the Great Depression who rose to prominence at UNC at a time when the institution was undergoing rapid post-war expansion and growing by 500 students a year. As chancellor from 1957 to 1964, he was thrown into political, fiscal and other controversies that continue to resonate at the university to this day.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt issued a statement lauding Aycock as “a truly beloved leader and faculty member over a 40-year association with Carolina.”

As much as Aycock was admired and venerated as a law professor, he was denounced and reviled by many during the signature crisis that defined him – and the university – at the height of the Cold War. The Speaker Ban Law of 1963, designed to silence Communists and other radical speakers, passed the legislature in a single day with little debate.

The speech ban made the campus in Chapel Hill the only place in the state where controversial speakers couldn’t express their ideas, noted Ray Dawson, former dean of Arts and Sciences.

“He faced it with great courage,” Dawson said Sunday from his home in Carolina Meadows.

Aycock spoke out against the gag law, earning front-page newspaper coverage and incurring the wrath of powerful lawmakers. Publicly challenging elected officials, Aycock called the law an “insult” and declared “it would be far better to close the university than to let a cancer eat away at the spirit of inquiry and learning.”

UNC law professor Gene Nichol wrote in a 2005 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review: “He did that despite the fact that the Speaker Ban was popular across the state and despite the fact that its proponents controlled his budget and, ultimately, his employment.

“Aycock’s theory of academic leadership, of course, is from another era.”

A three-judge panel declared the law unconstitutional in 1968, ending the controversy.

After he stepped down as chancellor, Aycock continued teaching law for two decades until his retirement in 1985, receiving the law school’s McCall Teaching Award five times.

Aycock was a graduate of N.C. State University and received his master’s degree and a law degree from UNC. During World War II, he served in Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army at the end of the Battle of the Bulge in Germany in 1945.

Aycock enrolled at UNC law school immediately after World War II and was invited to join the faculty after he guest-lectured for a professor who had laryngitis. The lectures established Aycock’s reputation as a legal whiz, but also confirmed to him that his first love was teaching.

His character faced its first test soon after he was named chancellor in 1957 when the legislature sought to cut UNC finding. Some lawmakers suggested that professors don’t work hard and carry light loads, according to a 1996 issue of Carolina Alumni Review.

Aycock made a plea before a joint appropriations committee of the House and Senate, warning of an erosion of standards and laying out a classic defense for the mission of a liberal arts university.

In 1961 he faced his second major crisis when the NCAA placed UNC’s basketball team on probation for violating recruiting regulations. Aycock was also presented with evidence of a UNC player’s acceptance of bribes. Aycock suspended a star player, All-American Doug Moe, for taking $75 from a gambler involved in point shaving at the Dixie Classic.

Students protested at Aycock’s home, resulting in a night-time, town-hall style meeting with protestors at Gerrard Hall. After Aycock invoked the sacred principle of integrity above all, the students gave him a standing ovation.

“As chancellor he always insisted on integrity in athletics and the primacy of the university’s academic mission,” Dawson said.

Those incidents resulted in Aycock’s hiring Dean Smith, then 30, as basketball coach, a move that resulted in grumbling and vocal criticism of Aycock’s judgment.

“Unfortunately,” Aycock said at the time, “there are some among those few who seem to entertain a misguided notion that in athletics the means are not too important if the end result is victory on the scoreboard.”

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