By Scott Mooneyham for the SNAP
Friday, October 19, 2012 —
A few years ago, while watching Bill Friday speak at some event or another, I recall thinking that he was someone no longer of this time.
The thought had less to do with the man than with the current day.
Friday embraced a largely non-cynical intellectualism. In a time when politics and the world can be cynical and even anti-intellectual, more focused on what public institutions can't or shouldn't be than what they can, his words could seem out of place.
Maybe that's because Friday spent his three decades as president of the University of North Carolina system always doing.
Friday's death, at the age of 92, has been accompanied by many reflections on all that he did to build the 16-campus UNC system into what it is today.
It would be hard to argue that anyone, not even one of his predecessors, Frank Porter Graham, had a bigger influence on the creation of one of the better public university systems in the United States.
Focusing solely on the UNC system may miss the bigger mark that he left on the state of North Carolina.
Friday played a key role in the creation and development of the Research Triangle Park.
He was also a member of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, whose work in the late1960s and early 1970s led to the formation of the Pell Grant program, giving more people than ever before an opportunity for a college education.
Against the interests of the university system that he represented, Friday argued that the money should follow the student and not flow directly to the universities.
Friday was also a champion of low tuition, both during his tenure and in later years.
It's worth remembering that, when Friday took over as UNC system president in 1956, North Carolina had one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the country and in the Southeast.
Creating more opportunity for an affordable, first-class college education, combined with cutting-edge employment opportunities at the Research Triangle Park, transformed North Carolina.
Friday played a huge role in that transformation.
He wasn't perfect, though.
His critics will always say that he could have done better when it came to desegregation of the university system, although he argued that the federal government's proposed remedies would have limited educational opportunities.
I regret not asking him how he viewed, in hindsight, his initial resistance to the creation of the medical school at East Carolina University. (I would argue that it is one of the great accomplishments of the North Carolina General Assembly during the 1970s.)
Last winter, after one my written rants about escalating college tuition and unsustainable levels of student debt, Friday called to offer words of encouragement.
Keep pounding the drum, and more people will come around to see the problem, he advised.
The old, cynical journalist wondered at the older, encouraging statesman's optimism and assuredness.
Maybe those traits are why he and his generation accomplished so much.