Nelson Ferebee Taylor ’42, who presided over the University as chancellor from 1972 to 1980, died on Feb. 25 at his home in Chapel Hill. He was 83.
When Taylor took over as UNC’s fifth chancellor, many North Carolinians regarded the University with dismay. Over the previous half decade, students at Chapel Hill, as elsewhere, had become unruly in protesting U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War; at Carolina, they had joined ranks with cafeteria workers in a labor dispute with civil rights overtones. Long hair on male students replaced the crew cut of a recently bygone era. Students were numerous beyond precedent, with enrollment reaching nearly 20,000.
Taylor – a native of the state and a son of the University – knew that one of his first tasks was to mend the fabric that holds together the people of North Carolina and their University. As a lawyer, his professional accomplishments at the national level served to deepen his love of his state.
In 1938, Taylor had left what years later he still called the “marvelous town” of Oxford, N.C., as the valedictorian of his high school class and arrived at Carolina as the first recipient of the Herbert Worth Jackson Scholarship, the first four-year scholarship given at UNC. His move extended a long family Tar Heel tradition: Taylor’s great-grandfather Ferebee was a graduate in 1839, and his great-grandfather Taylor finished in 1845. As a student, he was elected speaker of the Student Legislature and became president of Phi Beta Kappa. He also was president of the University Club and a member of Zeta Psi, the Order of the Golden Fleece and the Order of the Grail. He graduated with a degree in American history.
World War II interrupted his academic career, and Taylor went to sea in the U.S. Navy for three and a half years, serving as an officer aboard destroyers in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Pacific. He earned nine battle stars, received two commendations and was awarded the Bronze Star.
Back from the war, Taylor won the Harvard Law School Ames Moot Court competition and received his law degree cum laude in 1949. From Harvard he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, and for two years he attended Oxford University, where he was awarded both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
As he was later to acknowledge, Taylor received the finest of educations, at Carolina, Harvard Law School and Oxford University, all on someone else’s money, with the Jackson Scholarship at Chapel Hill, the GI Bill for Harvard and then the Rhodes. But he credited Carolina with forming the foundation for that knowledge. In remarks prepared to celebrate the beginning of a third century of UNC libraries, Taylor noted: “Much of what I know today I learned in the Reading Room upstairs … after the completion of [Wilson] library in 1929 but before its enlargement in 1952. For that reason, among others, I was glad to have the opportunity some 30 years later to play a role in adding to the resources of the University library.”
In 1958, Taylor practiced law in New York while maintaining a close relationship with UNC, serving as president of the UNC Alumni of Metropolitan New York and as a trustee of the N.C. Society of New York City.
Taylor returned to Chapel Hill in 1968 as a visiting law professor and in 1970 became vice president for administration for the UNC System. He played a central role in the system’s restructuring. Taylor became Carolina’s fifth chancellor in 1972, when the UNC System grew to its current size of 16 constituent institutions. A prevailing theme of his administration was the emphasis on the University’s relationship with and contributions to the state of North Carolina.
Taylor also demonstrated a true concern for students’ best interest – going as far as spending a night with three other UNC administrators in a Winston dorm room in September 1973 to bring attention to the overcrowded conditions in which some students lived and to discuss with residents and visitors other matters important to students.
Following Taylor’s recommendation, the UNC Board of Trustees created the Order of the Tar Heel One Hundred, which later was renamed the Board of Visitors.
As chancellor, Taylor launched the Carolina Challenge to increase UNC’s endowment to $100 million. The goal was reached in 1985, and two new foundations were created – the Institutional Development Foundation and the Arts and Sciences Foundation. UNC’s physical holdings also grew during Taylor’s term, to include the old Country Club property and the Baity property, which is the current site of the Dean E. Smith Center, the Kenan Center and the Kenan-Flagler School of Business, and the Koury Natatorium.
But Taylor also said: “All of this talk about money and facilities misses the central point. The truth about this institution is that it was built by the people of this state, it belongs to the people of this state, and it exists to serve the people of this state. I wanted very much to see the great human resources of this institution better related to the needs and aspirations of the people of North Carolina. The principal way the institution has done this for 200 years is through the education of young men and women, primarily from the state of North Carolina, but also from other parts of the nation and the world. … It has trained leaders in most of the significant callings of life.”
Taylor took special interest in improving the campus’s library facilities. He helped secure funds for the construction of Davis Library, the expansion of the Health Sciences Library and and renovation of Wilson Library. He also supported a substantial increase in the library’s holdings. The Nelson Ferebee Taylor Reading Room in Davis Library was dedicated in 1986.
Taylor also advocated diversity in the student body and faculty. From 1972 to 1979, black faculty members increased 280 percent (to 57); other minority faculty members increased 27 percent; and female faculty increased 32 percent. In terms of students, black enrollment grew 87 percent and female enrollment increased 52 percent. Taylor also oversaw the creation of the Pogue scholarships, which were created to attract top students from North Carolina with an emphasis on minority applicants.
Taylor joined the law school faculty in 1973. He stepped down as chancellor in January 1980, following a heart attack a year earlier, but continued to teach law until 1991. He was named Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor of Law and received the Frederick B. McCall Award for Teaching Excellence. In addition, an award in Taylor’s name was created 1991 and is awarded annually to a graduating law student for excellence in corporate law.
Another award in his name was created by the class of 1982. The annual award recognizes a senior who has “made the greatest contribution to the continued vitality and strength of the honor code in the community.”
Taylor represented the faculty on the GAA Board of Directors from 1981 to 1984 and received the GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal in 1988. In 2001, he received the Davie Award, the highest honor given by the Board of Trustees, for “extraordinary service to the University or to society.”
Taylor is survived by his wife, Diane Jackson Taylor ’64, a former assistant to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; and four daughters, Louise Taylor Arnold ’74, Sarah Taylor Peterson ’79 and Martha Gregory Taylor ’82 and Meredith Conley Adams.
A memorial service will be held at Chapel of the Cross, 304 E. Franklin St., in Chapel Hill at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 29. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Chancellors Scholars Program in the UNC School of Law.
This story includes reporting from a 1996 feature in the Review about Chancellor Taylor that was co-written by F. Weston Fenhagen ’46, the Review’s former editor, and Alice A. Joyce ’71, a former contributing editor.