William C. Friday (1920-2012)

Written By North Carolina History Project

Serving from 1956 to 1986, William Clyde “Bill” Friday was the first and longest serving president of the University of North Carolina.  During his tenure, Friday made significant changes to North Carolina higher education including playing major roles in the formation of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the development of the Research Triangle Park, and the consolidation and expansion of the state’s 16-campus system.

Friday was born on July 13, 1920 in Raphine, Virginia but was raised in Dallas, North Carolina near Gastonia. Friday attended Dallas High School where he was a debater, baseball player, and sports reporter for the Gaston Gazette. Following a year of study at Wake Forest University, Friday transferred to North Carolina State University.  He graduated with an engineering degree. After serving as an ensign in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Friday earned a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1948.

Friday spent his entire career in higher education.  He worked first as an assistant dean of students at UNC-Chapel Hill from 1948 to 1951. He then took the post of assistant to the President of the Consolidated University of North Carolina—Gordon Gray—from 1951 to 1955. Following a year working as Secretary of the UNC system, Friday was chosen to take the position of president in 1956.

As part of a national trend, higher education in North Carolina expanded rapidly following the Second World War. Friday pushed for North Carolinians to have greater access to college. During his administration, the UNC system incorporated 13 new campuses into the state system, bringing the total number to 16. The system’s budget rose substantially, from $40.7 million to $1.5 billion, and enrollment climbed from 14,971 to 125,000 students.

As president, Friday dealt with controversies over communism, radicalism, and desegregation on UNC campuses. Friday also dealt with the infamous Speaker Ban Law, enacted on the Chapel Hill campus in 1963. Friday’s reactions to these controversies were perceived as diplomatic and levelheaded, and he garnered respect from politicians and college presidents alike.

In 1985, Friday received the American Council on Education’s National Distinguished Service Award for Lifetime Achievement. In the following year, the Council of Advancement and Support of Education rated Friday the most effective public university president in the nation.

After his retirement in 1986, Friday briefly considered entering politics on the Democratic ticket in the NC gubernatorial election and the U.S. Senate race of 1986. He withdrew his candidacy in both races. C.D. Spangler succeeded Friday as president of the UNC system.

At 92 years of age, Friday passed away on October 12, 2012.