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UNC System Turns 40

Only five people have ever been the president of the 16-campus UNC system. Tom Ross, Erskine Bowles, Molly Broad, C-D Spangler, and Bill Friday got together last night to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the creation of the UNC system. It was a night of shared experiences and behind-the-scenes stories. But, the best story of all may be how the system was created in the early 1970s.

Governor Bob Scott did not show all that much interest in higher education during most of his four-year term in office in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. A dairy farmer from a political family, Scott could have eased out of office, gone back to Haw River, and waited for the next chapter of his life. Instead, with less than a year to go in his term, he took on the seemingly impossible task of restructuring higher education in North Carolina. In doing so, he took on the powerful Consolidated University system that at the time consisted of 6 schools, including UNC-Chapel Hill and N-C State.

Scott remembered the beginnings of the fight in a 1990 interview with the Southern Oral History Project.

Bob Scott: "I want to make clear, I don't think that there was any plot in saying that we're out to get, we are going to break up this cartel. It was just the feeling that, well, you know, the University is not all powerful and all be all."

Governor Scott and others wanted consolidation for 2 reasons: to form a more fair way of funding all campuses, and because legislators were just plain tired of being lobbied by every school. By the early ‘70s, the infighting between schools was beyond intense – and it was a fight that carried on into the special legislative session called by Governor Scott in October of 1971.

Former Governor Jim Holshouser was a legislator at the time and says simply…

Jim Holshouser: "I believe that’s the most intense debate I have ever seen in public life.

The debate’s two main combatants were Governor Scott and While Bill Friday. Friday had already been the president of the UNC system for 15 years. He and the trustees in Chapel Hill thought a 16-campus system would drain resources from the major research universities. But this was one fight Friday and the Trustees would not win.

William Link is a history professor at the University of Florida and the author of a biography on Friday.

William Link: "When the smoke of battle had cleared in the session that determined the restructuring, Friday had lost the battle but sort of won the war, might be one way of putting it."

The 16-campus University system was born, and it was Friday who would raise it to maturity over the next 15 years. Last night, at the 40th anniversary celebration, he recalled those first few difficult years.

Bill Friday: "I think the most important thing we did though, was from the very beginning, we agreed in our organization that the traditions and commitments and their institutions and their stated purposes would not be tampered with."

Through the force of his will and political skill, Friday was able to keep individual schools from lobbying. The trade off was Friday had great leeway in allocating funds to the member schools.

But when he retired in 1986, it became much more difficult for those who followed to maintain such a delicate balance. Historian William Link.

Link: "As things begin to fray, and they did fray after 1986, the old system, the old ’72 system where you had this kind of total lockdown on independent politicking by institutions has gone by the wayside."

Now, UNC-Chapel Hill and other schools each have their own very powerful political action committees, advocating and lobbying for their own interests.

Despite this, and severely shrinking budgets, the Presidents – including Bill Friday - all agreed last night that the University system is one of the state’s most essential institutions.

Friday: "The University and all its campuses is the engine that produces the people who will lead this state in the next half century. And we’ve got to be about making certain that it will continue to draw the talent irregardless of the cost."

Friday was speaking to those who are currently proposing a steep tuition increase for in-state students. He is 91 years old now – and clearly ripe for a fight over the tuition issue. 40 years after he last lost a battle over the creation of the UNC system, no one in the audience looked eager to take him on.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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