Last updated: May 31. 2013 10:22PM - 191 Views
D.G. Martin

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By dying on October 12, the 219th anniversary of the university’s founding,

UNC President Emeritus William Friday once again turned a seeming defeat

into a victory.

It was, some were saying, just like Presidents Jefferson and Adams, dying

on the same day, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the nation’s


Friday’s death leaves the state with a vacancy in the role he played as the

state’s public elder who was wise and energetic, our trusted prophet and


Friday did not become our state’s prophet by divine ordination. He earned

it through hard years of bruising struggles in the public arena. He did not

always win, but he had an amazing ability to do two things: (1) turn

apparent defeats into important and lasting victories, and (2) after even

the bitterest battle, reach out and turn his opponents into friends and

allies in common endeavors.

Here are some examples:

1. The 1961 crackdown on athletics. Some hard-core athletic fans may not

have forgiven Friday for cancelling the Dixie Classic basketball tournament

after several N.C. State players were implicated in a point-shaving

scandal. Friday’s controversial decision signaled that no matter how

popular and profitable university athletics may be, they cannot be allowed

to corrupt or supplant the university’s mission of education and service.

Friday’s action also gave notice of his decisiveness and resolve.

2. The Speaker Ban Law of 1963. For all his friendships and political

savvy, Friday was unable to stop the General Assembly from enacting the law

that prohibited “known members” of the Communist Party from speaking on

university campuses. Nor was he able to persuade the state’s leadership to

make a quick turnaround. But, in the end, his behind-the-scenes maneuvering

helped bring down the law, leaving a widespread consensus on the value of

free speech.

3. The 1971 merger of all the state’s public colleges and universities into

the University of North Carolina. People forget that bringing campuses into

one state agency was not Friday’s idea. In fact, he and his board fought

against it. But when the decision was made, Friday demanded excellence and

provided the strong leadership that made our multi-campus state university

the envy of every state in the union. His actions in taking charge after

the restructuring showed an effective administrative style. According to

his biographer, William Link, “That style embodied the qualities of

Friday’s personality: gregariousness and sensitivity, idealism and

cold-hearted efficiency, and unassuming accessibility and constant

communication with the state and national power structure. Friday had an

innate interest in people and an inherent ability to relate to them.”

4. The establishment of a medical school at East Carolina University.

Friday initially fought a new medical school there, but when he recognized

its inevitability, according to Link, he determined to make it “as fine a

school as you can make it.” While pushing for adequate funding for ECU’s

medical school, he used the legislature’s enhanced attention to health

education to fund expansion of the Chapel Hill medical school and the

establishment of “the most ambitious AHEC (Area Health and Education

Centers) program in the nation.” Link writes that the ECU controversy

demonstrated “Friday’s ability to adapt to new circumstances.”

5. The long controversy with the U.S. Department of Health, Education and

Welfare over desegregation. Almost forgotten today, Link writes, “Managing

the desegregation controversy became the greatest challenge of Bill

Friday’s leadership and certainly one of the gravest tests the University

of North Carolina had encountered in its two centuries of existence.”

Once again, Friday’s resiliency in responding to what could be

characterized as a series of defeats, resulted in strengthening the

university and solidifying his reputation for steady leadership.

William Friday’s victories are too numerous to mention. But it is his

powerful example of turning defeats into lasting achievements that will

always inspire me.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Fridays at 9:30

p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior

programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch/ A grant from the

North Carolina Humanities Council provides crucial support for North

Carolina Bookwatch.

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