CHAPEL HILL -

William "Bill" Friday, the man who personified higher education in the state even after he stepped down after 30 years as president of the University of North Carolina system, has died. He was 92.

His special assistant, Virginia Taylor, said the former UNC president died in his sleep early Friday.

Erskine Bowles, who became UNC system president in 2006, always addressed him as "President Friday."

"I never call him anything else," Bowles said in early 2009. "It's just out of respect. He was president when I was a student. He's been a hero of mine since I was in short pants. I have enormous respect for this great man, and I do consider him to still be the president of the university. I stand here on his shoulders, there's no question about it. And every president that follows me will."

Friday was just 35 years old and the assistant to outgoing UNC President Gordon Gray when he was offered the position of interim president of the UNC system in 1956. He didn't expect to stay long, telling a reporter: "I expect that I will be in this place no more than a few months."

He served until 1986.

"Bill Friday was one of the shapers of this modern, multi-campus system," said William Link, author of "William Friday: Power, Purpose and American Higher Education," a biography published in 1997. "He was the person who kind of consolidated things and built the system the way it is now.

"It's gone through a lot of changes, but it's Bill Friday's university in a lot of ways."

Friday was more than an excellent leader, Link said. He was an empathetic man who connected with people, remembering details about someone he met just once.

"He was very unlike the kind of university presidents we have now, who are CEO types and no one has access. Bill Friday, everyone had access to. But he managed it in a very cool way," Link said.

Link's biography portrayed Friday as the calm at the center of many storms — among them a 10-year fight with what was then the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

The last was "the heaviest burden to carry for the longest period of time," Friday said in an Associated Press interview in 1995.

The fight involved the agency's contention that duplicate programs at traditionally white and black campuses must be eliminated to achieve racial balance, a proposal that Friday fought throughout the Carter administration. It was settled quietly with a consent decree in 1981 with the Reagan administration that required UNC to spend more money at historically black institutions but did not end duplicate programs.

To reach that settlement, Friday, a progressive and a liberal, had to work not only with the Republican president but also with conservative Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. It wasn't that Friday was opposed to desegregation — it was that he believed that the state and UNC should control the university, not the federal government.

"It was a classic civil rights struggle, except it was really profoundly complicated," Link said. "Friday, a liberal, was on the side of people resisting federally controlled desegregation."