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Bill Friday
Mike Smith, left, dean of the School of Government and vice chancellor for engagement, talks about outreach and service  with UNC President Emeritus William Friday on Jan. 8.

Mike Smith set about the task before him with a characteristic humility bordering on self-deprecation.

Only this time, Smith, dean of the School of Government and vice chancellor for engagement since last November, had ample reason to feel humble.

He was in the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education on Jan. 8, before an audience of some 90 faculty members, and he was sitting across from Bill Friday, the iconic figure for whom the building was named.

The audience was there to hear an interview between the two men, which in itself was not unusual. Since retiring as president of the UNC system two decades before, Friday had conducted countless interviews with the state’s movers and shakers as host of the WUNC talk show, “North Carolina People.”

Except this time, Friday was the one answering the questions — and Smith doing some of the asking.

The name Bill Friday, after all, was tied to more than a building. The name, and the man, had become the living embodiment of the ideal, the creed, the ethos the two men were to discuss: public service, which is now increasingly referred to as “engagement.”

 “This is fairly daunting for me for reasons that are obvious to everyone in the room,” Smith began.

But he was quickly put at ease by Friday who said, “I’ve got the gray hair.”

Friday then asked for a show of hands in the audience for anybody who had worked for the University for 50 years or more. “Is there anybody left but me?” he asked. When no hands shot up, he added, “Well, that doesn’t give me license.”

The 86-year-old Friday, who was raised in Dallas, N.C., served as the first president of the UNC system from 1956 to 1986. Before leading the UNC system, Friday was Carolina’s assistant dean of students from 1948 to 1951, then President an assistant to Carolina President Gordon Gray from 1951 to 1955. He later served as acting president of Carolina until he was chosen as UNC president.

Friday launched into a remembrance of the University he found in 1946 after serving in World War II. The mission of public outreach and engagement to the state began long before that, Friday said, but this was a period when it may have come closest to full bloom.

The campus of 1946 was full of whirlwinds such as Albert Coates, the founder of the Institute of Government, that would evolve into the School of Government. Back then, Friday said, Coates was “running all over the state telling public officials what their jobs were,” from county commissioners to judges, to finally, the General Assembly itself.   

(Established in 1931, the institute became the largest university-based local government training and consulting organization in the nation. Smith took the institute’s helm from 1992 to 2001 after being a professor of public law and government there for 14 years. Smith became dean of the School of Government when the University created it in 2001.)

Friday said another historic figure he ran into in the late 1940s was Howard Odum, the renowned sociologist who had arrived in Chapel Hill in 1920 to direct the School of Public Welfare and Department of Sociology. In 1944, Odum was one of the five founding members of the Southern Regional Council.

Through leaders such as Odum and Coates, UNC-Chapel Hill was identifying a new practice of outreach and service that was new and foreign to the way of thinking of many faculty members, Friday said. At the time, only two other universities in the country, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, were trying it.

The idea behind it was to make a difference in the quality of life of the state through direct involvement. One notable example of it here was the creation of the North Carolina Area Health Education Centers Program in 1972. The need for such a system was documented in a report from the Carnegie Commission, which recommended the development of a nationwide system of such centers.

The idea for such centers sprang from a health-care conference Friday attended on a rainy Saturday afternoon in the early 1960s at Spelman College in Atlanta. Every time he hears a plane take off from Horace Williams Airport, he said, he is reminded of how universities can be do things that truly can make a difference in the country, Friday said.

Jim Hunt, at the end of his second term during his final stint as governor in the late 1990s, became restless and worried that the state seemed not to have a sense of direction of where it was going or a strategy to attack the multitude of problems facing it.

Hunt eased his unrest by putting together a study commission that included some 60 University faculty members who looked at every aspect of this state that was appropriate to investigate, Friday said.

The result was the most definitive piece of work of self-examination that any state has done before or since.

Many of these same problems that were identified persist and still must be addressed — from air pollution in the Triangle and Charlotte to future water shortages caused by population growth to surging student populations in fast-growing Wake County and elsewhere. Friday said someone also needed to tell the state legislature to look at the tax structure in the state that does not yield sufficient revenues to address these problems.

“You gather (here today) at a very real and powerful moment for the state itself,” Friday said. “I’m old enough to say that the problems are not going to get solved unless you look at them, unless you speak to them, unless you look at the options.”

The asset that the University holds, in addition to its breadth of knowledge, is the depth of feeling that the people of the state harbor for the institution.

People come to him and ask, “How is my hospital?” he said.

“The affinity is real. It’s the chemistry you have, the humanity in it that is at least 150 years old.”

Smith asked Friday to talk about the direction that two of our national peers, the universities of Virginia and Michigan, seem now to be taking away from their legacy as public institutions.

“I think they made a serious mistake,” Friday said, and a reckless way to deal with the future.

It is a mistake Friday does not see happening here.

“I believe when they wrote the constitution of this state — ‘free as practicable’ — the state was ensuring for itself an educated population that could carry forward the business of government, of business, of commerce.

“If you lose sight of that you have lost your very reason for existence.”

Chancellor James Moeser, in his introductory remarks before the interview, harkened back to the words of Edward Kidder Graham, the president of the University of North Carolina who in 1914 said he hoped to make to make the campus co-extensive with the boundaries of the state.

“This is not something recently planted,” Moeser said. “The roots of engagement go back to Edward Kidder Graham who said to the state, ‘Send us your problems.’”

Nearly a century later, Carolina’s engagement no longer stops at the state boundaries ,and that is how it should be, Moeser said.

“There is no contradiction whatsoever to being committed to our state, to the South and the world. Ultimately, engagement is a global commitment.”

Last year, Moeser formed the Chancellor’s Task Force on Engagement with North Carolina that explored ways the University could strengthen and expand its service to the state. In its final report, the task force focused on new steps the University can take to serve the state in K-12 education, health care and economic development. 

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