Martin: 30 years later, Ross in Friday’s footsteps

“He’s got great job security,” someone asserted a few years ago when UNC President Tom Ross’s job first seemed to be at risk after the party affiliation of UNC’s board of governors changed.

He explained, “Look, if the board fires him, he will run for governor—not something they would welcome.”

NC Bookwatch by D.G. Martin

NC Bookwatch
by D.G. Martin

Now that the board has given Ross notice, will he fulfill the prediction and run for governor?

Probably not. Democrats already have two candidates headed for a Democratic primary next year.

But the U.S. Senate?


The UNC presidency and U.S. Senate races have had close connections. Even more than 60 years later, North Carolinians still talk about university president Frank Porter Graham’s appointment to the Senate in 1949 and his loss to Willis Smith a year later in a contest that still defines North Carolina politics.

More recently, Erskine Bowles, university president from 2006 through 2011, had already run for the Senate twice, losing first to Elizabeth Dole in 2002 and then in 2004 to Richard Burr.

Should he become a candidate, Ross would bring a rare combination of many assets that would make for a very strong statewide candidate, one that would make Democratic leaders smile.

In addition to the visibility, experience and widespread earned respect he gained as university president, Ross has actual campaign experience, winning election as a superior court judge. As judge and later as director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, he traveled widely, making connections in courthouses across the state. Having served on the staff of Congressman Robin Britt, he knows something about how Washington works. Leading the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, he got an education every day in the great needs and potential of the people across North Carolina.

Should Ross consider a candidacy, he would find parallels in the experience of William Friday, who led the university from 1956 through 1986. After he had announced his retirement, but before he left office, Friday considered a senate campaign.

In William Friday: Power, Purpose, & American Higher Education, biographer William Link wrote that Friday “seriously considered a political career in 1985, when Democratic leaders such as Lieutenant Governor Robert Jordan III advised him to stand for John East’s Senate seat the following year. On September 28, 1985, former governor Terry Sanford took Friday aside after the inauguration of Duke University President H. Keith Brodie and urged him to run.”

Polls showed Friday “leading the field.”

According to Link, “Friday weighed his alternatives. In the first week of October, he told John R. Jordan that he was ‘not removing himself’ as a candidate, but that he would not resign the UNC presidency early in order to enter the campaign. During the last week of that month, he twice spoke by telephone with Bob Jordan, who, as the highest-ranking Democratic leader in the state, was leading the search for a strong opponent to Senator East. Then, in a public statement issued on October 24, 1985, Friday withdrew himself from consideration.”

Later, Friday confessed that he had second thoughts. “Whether it was the right choice or not,” he told Link, “one can never know.”

Link gave several reasons that Friday decided not to run. “Lacking an organization, he would need to raise a considerable amount of money and recruit a staff from scratch. Moreover, he remained obligated to UNC during the period of transition to the new president.”

More important, Link suggests, was Friday’s memory of the ugly attacks on Frank Graham’s role at UNC and his worry that “the university might become an issue in the political campaign.”

Should Ross, now, 30 years after Friday made his choice, also consider a senate candidacy, he would face similar considerations. Maybe, though, he will make a decision that will not leave room for the kind of second thoughts William Friday experienced.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information visit

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