For those of us who admired Bill Friday and his long and distinguished career, we knew the day would eventually come when we received that call or email, or heard the news on the radio, telling us that the former president of the UNC system had passed away.
Yet, when I heard last week that Friday had died, it was like waking one morning and experiencing for the first time the sudden loss of an ancient oak that had always been part of our lives and too often taken for granted. With a tree of such presence – its roots firmly anchored in the ground of its native land, its towering trunk a symbol of enduring strength, and its stately branches reaching far in all directions to provide both shelter and inspiration –we mistakenly come to view it as a permanent part of the landscape.
Bill Friday was such a presence in North Carolina. Having served three decades as president of the UNC system between 1956 and 1986 – a period of dramatic growth for the system in size and prestige – Friday built what was already one of the state’s most important institutions into an economic, intellectual and cultural force that played a greater role than any other during the 20th century to lift a poor and provincial state above its Southern peers.
After retiring, Friday continued to play a leadership role in North Carolina on issues as diverse as rural poverty, land conservation and intercollegiate athletics. He used a weekly television show on UNC-TV to highlight people and initiatives that he believed his fellow Tar Heels should know about and support.
As I read the tributes, saw the amount of space devoted to his life and career in the state’s major newspapers and followed the many heartfelt postings on Facebook and Twitter about his impact on North Carolina, I couldn’t help but ask: How could the death of a university administrator – a “career bureaucrat” as some critics of higher education like to refer to academic leaders – elicit the sort of outpouring of love and respect from the public that is usually reserved for athletes and entertainers?
I suspect the answer lies not only in the unique qualities of the man himself, but in the instinctive truth behind one of Friday’s favorite assertions when he was arguing for more resources for the UNC system – that the people of North Carolina truly love and value their public university. Yes, it’s true many across the state who otherwise might not have known who Friday was some 25 years after his retirement were nonetheless familiar with him because of his weekly television show. But it’s hard to imagine an education leader in any other state receiving the posthumous adulation that Friday received over the past week, even from those far removed from the state’s intellectual and policy leaders.
North Carolina, for all its shortcomings, has long been admired nationally for its support of a public university system. A call to create a state university was included in the state’s original constitution in 1776, and the doors to the country’s first public university opened some 20 years later in Chapel Hill. Continued financial support and a commitment to academic freedom created a respected system of higher education that not only made college possible for many North Carolinians, but served as a catalyst for the state’s economic and cultural awakening in the latter half of the 20th century. Whenever the mission and core values of the university were threatened, leaders like Friday vigorously defended them. And the definition of the university was eventually expanded to include today’s system of 17 campuses spanning the state. UNC Charlotte’s inclusion as part of that system came during Friday’s tenure, and he worked closely with UNC Charlotte’s first chancellor, Dean Colvard, to establish the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute as an example of how the university could – and should – give back to the people of the state through service and outreach.
Friday, who grew up in Gaston County, was successful as a leader and champion of the UNC system and was so admired by the state’s people because he embodied the qualities and aspirations North Carolinians liked to attribute to their “university of the people.” Last week, the editor of the Raleigh News & Observer asked me to choose a few words to describe Bill Friday’s leadership. Earlier in my career, I was fortunate to direct a statewide leadership program named for him – the William C. Friday Fellowship for Human Relations, a program of the Wildacres Leadership Initiative. In that role, I had the opportunity to observe Friday as he engaged with a new generation of the state’s leaders. In answering the editor’s question, I chose the words grace, integrity and humility. Afterward, I realized that I’ve often used those same three words to outside observers to describe the people of North Carolina.
If North Carolina’s public university is indeed a reflection of the people and their hopes and aspirations, and Bill Friday was the most visible symbol of that university for many years, then it shouldn’t be surprising that he reflected the values of both. Given how intertwined Friday’s life was with the people of his state and the university they engendered, perhaps we can be forgiven for coming to view his towering presence as a permanent part of the landscape. But now Bill Friday is gone. Fittingly, he died on University Day, the annual celebration of the university’s founding that takes place beneath the shade of centuries-old poplars and oaks on the Chapel Hill campus.
Friday’s death leaves an unmistakable gap in the leadership canopy that sheltered North Carolina’s values around public education for so long. Looking to the future (as I know he would want us to do), my hope is that we don’t view Bill Friday’s progressive style of leadership as old-fashioned or irrelevant, discarding it in favor of something we perceive to be more suitable to our modern world.
The leadership Friday gave this state was the kind of leadership that is developed over time, grounded in its place but reaching for greater heights, its impact spanning generations – not the sort of ephemeral leadership acquired in a self-help book or imparted by a management consultant. It’s the difference between a fast-growing ornamental from the local nursery and a timeless oak.
Note on top photograph: Governor Dan Moore (speaking) at the 1965 convocation on the occasion of Charlotte College becoming UNC Charlotte. Bonnie Cone, Bill Friday, Brodie Griffith (editor of the Charlotte News) seated. Photo: University Archives, UNC Charlotte Library
Views expressed here are the author’s and not necessarily the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.