Fifty years ago, William C. Friday, class president, stood at the podium and addressed his fellow graduates of North Carolina State College’s Class of 1941. He urged them to “keep State College constantly in your mind. . . You and I are going to be held responsible in a great measure for the growth and progress of the institution.”
William Friday went a step further, however, and for the following 50 years has been an outstanding advocate not only for his alma mater, but for The University of North Carolina, and for American higher education.
While still a student, William Friday began turning heads. One journalist wrote prophetically in 1941, “This man Friday is a big operator. He hobnobs with North Carolina’s main-line politicians and gives every indication of being a coming member of that select coterie....He thinks nothing of running up to the Governor’s office for a chat....In recent weeks, with appropriations in mind, he has been buttonholing legislators to extoll State College and point to its needs. None close their minds to this friendly, frank-faced boy from Gaston.”
It surprised few that by his 15th class reunion, Friday had been named president of the Consolidated University of North Carolina. At 36 years old in 1956, he was one of the youngest university presidents, and certainly was one of few who had ascended to such academic heights without previous top administrative experience, or an advanced academic degree, or any classroom teaching experience.
Thirty years later, when he retired as president of The University of North Carolina system in 1986, he had left a legacy of national admiration for the state’s system of higher education. He had achieved that legacy not by heavy-handed autocracy, but by encouraging quiet cooperation and communication among his administrators.
Friday spent his boyhood in Dallas, N. C., where he was a debater, played baseball and wrote sports news for the Gastonia Gazette. He was president of his class each year in high school.
He entered Wake Forest College for one year and then transferred to North Carolina State College. At State he earned numerous awards, was sports editor of the Technician and president of the senior class. He earned a bachelor’s degree in textile engineering with honors.
After service as an ensign in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he entered law school at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he earned a degree in 1948. Shortly after, he married Ida Willa Howell of Lumberton.
Friday served as an assistant to Gordon Gray, president of the University of North Carolina, from 1951 to 1955. In 1956 he began his career as president–a career marked by smooth administrative leadership despite inevitable conflicts and controversies brought on by the system’s growing pains.
During his tenure, the system grew from three institutions to 16, its annual budget rose from $40.7 million to $1.5 billion, and enrollment climbed from 14,971 to 125,000 students.
Meanwhile, Friday guided American higher education as well, serving as chairman of numerous national panels including the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the American Council on Education, President Johnson’s Task Force on Education, President Carter’s Task Force on Education, the American Council on Education and the Knight Foundation National Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
In 1985 he received the American Council on Education’s National Distinguished Service Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the following year was rated the most effective public university president in the nation by the Council of Advancement and Support of Education.
Through the years, Friday maintained first-hand contact with the people of North Carolina and hosted the television program “North Carolina People” for 19 years.
Friday continues his active role in academia as University Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.