Sitting in Memorial Hall at the heart of the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina, Mary Willingham wondered what William Friday would want her to do. Friday’s memorial service in October 2012 drew a large and reverent audience: scholars of the humanities and sciences, national political figures, and university staff members such as Willingham, who’d spent the previous decade tutoring athletes and other undergraduates in need of remedial reading help. The tribute to Friday, president of the state university system from 1956 to 1986, reflected the accomplishments and contradictions of the institution he embodied. Slaves helped build UNC, the nation’s first public university, which opened in 1795. The original Memorial Hall, dedicated in 1885, honored students and faculty who’d died defending the Confederacy. Taking office only two years after the Supreme Court ordered an end to “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education, Friday pushed for desegregation in the face of sometimes-violent opposition. Under his stewardship, Chapel Hill earned a reputation for excellence and became a powerhouse in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
As she listened to the eulogies, Willingham pondered another aspect of Friday’s legacy. In his last decades he’d tried to stir discussion about whether commercialized intercollegiate athletics was distorting higher education. That’s why Willingham had approached Friday in his 92nd and final year. In private conversations, she’d told him about her mounting anxiety that rather than educating its recruited athletes, UNC was playing a shell game to keep them from needing to study at all. She’d told him about basketball and football stars who read at a grade school level. She confessed that she’d helped steer some of these young men—many of them black—into lecture classes that never met. Worst of all, given Carolina’s racial history, the phony courses were offered in the black studies department.