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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Five UNC system presidents discuss its 40-year history

Current UNC president Tom Ross, left, is joined by former presidents C.D. Spangler Jr., Bill Friday, Erskine Bowles and Molly Corbett Broad during a Nov. 9 conversation in Memorial Hall. (Photos by Rachel Willis)


In 1789, the North Carolina General Assembly chartered the University of North Carolina, and for more than a century, Chapel Hill remained its only campus.

It got company in 1931 when what now are N.C. State and UNC-Greensboro were added. Legislative action in 1969 added three more campuses in Charlotte, Wilmington and Asheville.

What happened in 1971, former Gov. James E. Holshouser Jr. believes, was “a political miracle” when the legislature brought the state’s 10 remaining public universities into a unified system overseen by one president and a single Board of Governors.

“All of this was pretty unique to the state of North Carolina, “ Holshouser said. “We had some people in the state who didn’t think this was going to work. We had a whole lot of people nationally – the so-called higher education experts – who didn’t think it was going to work.”

But it did work, to a degree that has left detractors wondering how it happened, Holshouser said. The system turned the state of North Carolina into a national leader in higher education, and in the process, transformed the state into one of the most prosperous in the South.

A big reason, Holshouser believes, is the leadership provided by the five people who have served as president during the system’s 40-year history. On Nov. 9, Holshouser joined all five in conversation on stage at Memorial Hall for “An Evening with Five Presidents.”

“You have to say,” Holshouser said before asking his first question, “just as the buck stops at the top, so does the credit, and these folks up here have brought simply an amazing array of talent and skill to the university. North Carolina is going to forever owe them a debt of gratitude.”

Bill Friday – who was elected president of the three-campus University of North Carolina in 1956 – served as the first president of the expanded UNC system from its inception in 1971 to 1986.

The new system worked, in part, because “we all knew that we had to make this idea work,” he said.

Despite the tension and confusion of those first months and years, people had the bond of shared purpose and conducted their business in “a warm atmosphere of friendship,” Friday said.

“The most important thing we did, from the very beginning, we agreed that the traditions and commitments of the institutions and their stated purposes would not be tampered with,” he said.

“We weren’t going to go in and try to homogenize the system. Our purpose was to bring order and to bring unity to something that we had hope would become the greatest asset the state had.”

C.D. Spangler Jr., who succeeded Friday in 1986, said he believed his biggest task was not to break what Friday and others had created.

Molly Corbett Broad, who succeeded Spangler in 1997, said serving as president of the UNC system remains “the greatest privilege of my professional life.”

Universities change people’s lives, Broad said, which is what makes it such a fulfilling line of work. As president, she never forgot that the enterprise was much bigger than any individual.

“You always had the sense you are a small link in a very long chain that stretches out over decades and indeed centuries,” she said.

When Holshouser asked the presidents why they had wanted the job, he received a range of answers, including perhaps the quip of the night from Erskine Bowles, who succeeded Broad in 2006. “I took this job because it was the only place that a guy who wore glasses like this could actually fit in,” he said.

Tom Ross, who replaced Bowles as president at the beginning of this year, said he had hesitated taking the job because he felt unworthy following the system’s four previous presidents.

“When I look at these four people who were my predecessors, I think about their commitment, not only to the University of North Carolina, but to a civil society, to the common good,” Ross said.

“Not a one of them needed the job. It was truly a calling because they knew it was their time to make a difference: To make a difference in North Carolina; to make a difference in the lives of young people; but most of all, to make a difference in the communities throughout the state.”

Spangler said he knew firsthand what it was like having a tough act to follow.

Friday served a total of 30 years as UNC president – many more years than all the other presidents combined, Spangler said.

When he took the job, people would ask over and over about how hard it must have been to replace such an iconic figure. “I mentioned those discussions with Bill one time,” Spangler said, “and his answer to me was, ‘You got it easy. I had to follow Frank Porter Graham.’”

In describing why he wanted to serve as president, Spangler quoted from “Waiting for Godot,” an absurdist play by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett:

“Let us do something while we have the chance. It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would make the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, these cries for help still ringing in our ears. But at this place, at this time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!”

Ross touts former UNC presidents’ leadership as their ‘best advice’ for him

It was the last question of the evening, and as former Gov. James Holshouser Jr. knew, the one question for which the four past presidents could have many answers.

What advice would each give current president Tom Ross as he leads the UNC system into a future filled with uncertainties?

“Keep his health,” the 91-year-old Bill Friday offered.

“That’s funny coming from you because you have been burning both ends of the candle since I’ve known you,” Holshouser rejoined.

“Steer the steady course,” Molly Corbett Broad advised, “keeping in mind that the university comes from the people and goes to the people. Godspeed.”

C.D. Spangler Jr. offered a 10-point austerity plan. He said that while he did not particularly like the suggestions he was about to make, they would be preferable to raising tuition to levels that he feared would prevent too many students from being able to attend college.

His suggestions included freezes on out-of-state travel, faculty sabbaticals and pay raises for employees who earn more than $100,000, and a moratorium on establishing new professional schools or expanding athletic facilities. He also suggested that the 1,000 wealthiest North Carolinians should pay the tuition for 10 students through tax-deductible gifts.

Erskine Bowles offered a word of caution about adding more cuts on a system that has already endured four consecutive years of reduced state support.

“I know in my last three years here we had over $600 million worth of budget cuts, and I thought that was tough,” Bowles said. “Tom has had over $400 million cut in his first year.”

Protecting access to college was important, Bowles said, but not more important than preserving the quality of education for students once they are enrolled.

“We not only have to provide an education that is as free from expense as practicable, but we’ve also got to provide a high-quality education,” Bowles said. “I’ve always believed that low tuition without high quality is no bargain for anyone. It is not a bargain for the student, and it is not a bargain for the taxpayer.

“To do that, in the future, we’re going to have to have support from the General Assembly. The General Assembly and the taxpayers of North Carolina are going to have to realize what a critically important asset the university is to the future of our citizens.

“My hope is that tuition will always remain a secondary source of revenue, but I hope that you will ask us, as time goes on, to do anything we can to help you get the resources you need to make sure we keep this value equation right.”

Ross didn’t answer the question, of course, but he had the final word.

“I would start by suggesting: Dick, if you’ll send me that list of 1,000 people, we’ll get right at it,” he said, to a general outburst of laughter and some of the loudest applause of the night.

Ross waited for silence before he spoke again.

“I just want to say that their words tonight I very much understand and accept, but what I really appreciate is the leadership they have given this university and the example they have set,” he said.

“That’s the best advice that they could give me.”