William Friday, who died Oct. 12 at age 92, was a quiet and modest man who preferred consensus-building to confrontation. Yet as president of the University of North Carolina system for three decades, he became one of this state's most influential political leaders.
His skill at garnering support was legendary. As former governor Jim Hunt said at a memorial service, "The secret of Bill Friday wasn't just what he did. It was what he got us to do."
As a longtime editorial page editor at the Charlotte Observer, I know what Hunt meant. Friday courted the press as skillfully as any public official I've known. He'd often call me just to chat about public affairs, usually offering tidbits of information he knew I'd find interesting. I know his call list included hundreds of others.
In the 1970s, the Observer's editorials often criticized UNC's stance in negotiations with federal officials about desegregation. We thought UNC should do more to remedy the inequities of segregation, and do it more quickly. Friday came to Charlotte one day to have lunch with me and Jack Claiborne, a UNC alum and writer of many of those editorials.
It was a pleasant lunch. Not once did Friday mention our editorials, which I'm sure had annoyed him. Instead, he methodically explained UNC's position. On many issues we still didn't agree with him, but we came away respecting his argument.
Friday became UNC president in 1957 at age 36, overseeing campuses in Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Greensboro. During his tenure the system grew to 16 universities plus the School of the Arts. He inherited a university that by tradition had been a bastion of academic integrity, unfettered speech and inquiry, and resistance to outside interference in its affairs.
Athletics presented Friday's first big challenge. Coach Everett Case had built a basketball powerhouse at North Carolina State, but in 1956 the NCAA discovered major recruiting violations and imposed harsh restrictions on the school.
Worse news came soon. Investigators found that gamblers had bribed N.C. State players to shave points in several games, including one in the 1960 Dixie Classic. The classic, played annually in Raleigh, was the country's most successful holiday tournament, pitting Wake Forest, N.C. State, North Carolina and Duke against top out-of-state teams. It fed the state's growing basketball fervor as well as Raleigh's businesses and N.C. State's athletic coffers.
In 1961, Friday sent a stunning message. He abolished the classic, saying it exemplified "exploitation for public entertainment or for budgetary and commercial purposes" of a program that should exist only as a part of college life. Fans — and many legislators — were aghast, but Friday prevailed.
On the next challenge, Friday lost. In 1963, the civil rights movement was in full swing. Raleigh TV commentator Jesse Helms railed against communist involvement in the movement, and that summer, a demonstration in Raleigh led to mass arrests. Many Chapel Hill graduates, students and faculty were involved.
Some state legislators, alarmed by civil unrest, suspicious of communist involvement and fed up with Chapel Hill liberals, cracked down. They banned campus speeches by, among others, "known communists" and anyone who had taken the Fifth Amendment in refusing to answer questions about communist subversion. Friday was appalled by the law's intrusion into university affairs. He tried unsuccessfully to get it repealed. Frustrated, he privately advised a student leader to sue to overturn it. A federal court did so.
Another big challenge involved federal efforts to speed desegregation. North Carolina had done the most of any Southern state to provide college opportunities for blacks, but courses at traditionally black universities were fewer and less challenging than at traditionally white campuses.
The 1972 election of Jimmy Carter brought passionate civil rights advocates into office and intensified federal insistence on sweeping change. UNC refused to yield to federal pressure to transfer some academic programs from traditionally white to traditionally black campuses.
Politics settled matters. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president. Soon, a deal was struck. UNC would add several programs at the traditionally black schools and substantially increase funding, but Friday got what he wanted: a plan that required good-faith efforts, not mandatory results.
In retirement, Friday remained more active than most people with full-time jobs. He continued his weekly interview show on UNC-TV. He had long considered commercialization of college football and basketball to be a threat to the autonomy and integrity of higher education, and he continued to be a national leader in reform efforts.
Anyone compiling a list of North Carolina's most valuable citizens surely would put Bill Friday at the top.