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Former Chancellor Chris Fordham ’47 Dies at 81

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Chancellor Chris Fordham '47

Chancellor Chris Fordham ’47 (Photo by Bill Bamberger ’79)

Christopher C. Fordham III ’47, chancellor from 1980 to 1988 and the only medical doctor to serve in the post, died early Thursday at UNC Hospitals. A longtime Chapel Hill resident, he was 81.

Fordham presided over a major revision of the undergraduate curriculum as well as the creation of more than 20 programs linking the University with the state’s public schools. The landmark Area Health Education Centers started during his tenure, and research funding nearly doubled during that time, to $105 million from $56 million.

“He ushered in what we thought of as the modern era of the University,” said Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86, whose diploma bears Fordham’s signature. “Chancellor Fordham is rightly regarded as the driving force behind a period of extraordinary success at Carolina.”

Thorp said that in conversations with Fordham in recent years, he made clear the lasting impact one high-profile episode had on him. In 1986, students built a shanty town in Polk Place to pressure UNC to drop its investments in companies that did business in apartheid South Africa. Though Fordham supported the students in principle, he ordered the shanties taken down after two weeks, and some students were arrested.

“I think he thought about the day those kids got arrested every day of his life,” Thorp said.

“Following him as chancellor was a privilege and a joy,” said Chancellor Emeritus Paul Hardin. “Whenever something developed that put us in the news, I would get a supportive hand note, whether it was good news or bad news. He was always the strongest supporter that I had.

“I have tried to carry that forward by being a very strong supporter of my successors. The community of chancellors is close-knit. He was a man of determination and grace.”

Stuart Bondurant ’50, dean emeritus of the medical school, said, “For 50 years, he has been a champion both locally and nationally of equal opportunity in education and minority presence in medicine. He was a major force in the development of the UNC Health Care System. He has been a leader of North Carolina medicine and an inspiring teacher for generations of physicians to whom he transmitted an infectious sense of social responsibility.”

The University plans to ring the bell of South Building, which houses the chancellor’s office, six times on Sunday, the day of Fordham’s memorial service, to recognize his role in the University’s history as its sixth chancellor. The bell rings to mark the most significant University occasions. The University also will lower the North Carolina flag in Polk Place this weekend to half-staff to honor Fordham.

Fordham enrolled at Carolina in 1944 and received a Certificate in Medicine in 1949 without completing his undergraduate degree. UNC did not have a four-year medical school until 1954. He earned his medical degree at Harvard in 1951.

Fordham has been praised for his efforts to strengthen undergraduate education at UNC. Acting on a study of the undergraduate curriculum initiated by his predecessor, Ferebee Taylor ’42, Fordham praised the goal of teaching students to conceptualize and analyze rather than to memorize facts and theories that rapidly become obsolete. The new curriculum became operative in 1982, and its effects soon were apparent. Within three years, a U.S. News & World Report magazine survey listed the UNC undergraduate program among the top 10 of major U.S. research universities.

Another of his key achievements was his revitalization of Carolina’s relationship with N.C. public schools through more than 20 teacher-training programs. One of the most successful was the Lyndhurst Program, which provided a stipend, tuition and fees to baccalaureate graduates for one year of master’s study in the School of Education and the College of Arts and Sciences. In return for their advanced training, the new instructors agreed to teach for at least three years in the public schools of North Carolina or Tennessee.

The largest of the educational programs introduced during Fordham’s tenure was the 10-institution Mathematics and Science Education Network, launched in 1984. “We learned that the math and science teachers were the least qualified in the state,” Fordham explained in 1996. “We took a little bit of discretionary money and, with the leadership of the faculty, the School of Education and departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, we put together some yearlong seminars.”

Ten years later, the network, from a small beginning, had served 57,851 teachers. Its pre-college program, designed to increase opportunities for historically underrepresented women and minorities in math and science teaching, had graduated 610 students.

The Principals’ Executive Program, a postgraduate program to train public school principals in management, was developed by then-Institute of Government Director John Sanders ’50 at Fordham’s direction, and Sanders gave Fordham much of the credit, citing his help in raising the necessary funds and his personal attention to the principals.

“He loved the role that this University had played in enhancing the stature of our state, and he devoted his life to strengthening and broadening that role,” said Garland Hershey, who was vice chancellor for health affairs under three chancellors including Fordham.

His chancellorship also saw a significant building expansion with the opening of  Sitterson Hall, which houses the computer science department; the Hanes Art Center; the Kenan Center, home of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise; Davis Library; the Dean Smith Center; the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center; an expansion of the dental school; and the Morehead chemistry labs.

Born in Greensboro in 1926, Fordham knew he wanted to be a doctor from an early age. While working as a clerk and soda jerk at a pharmacy started by his grandfather and then run by his father, Christopher Fordham Jr. ’25, he heard the stories swapped by physicians who dropped by the store.

Carolina was a family tradition – 18 members of Fordham’s family attended the University, including three uncles; his wife, Barbara Byrd Fordham ’49; and their three daughters.

Fordham served as president of his freshman class and joined Sigma Chi fraternity.

After Harvard, he became an intern at Georgetown University and did his residency at Boston Hospital. He was a senior assistant resident in medicine in UNC’s new four-year medical school and did a two-year stint as an Air Force medical officer. He opened a private practice in Greensboro in 1957 and then returned to Chapel Hill to teach in the School of Medicine. “I had no intention at the time to get into medical administration,” he told the Durham Morning Herald in 1974.

Twelve years after he came back to UNC, the Medical College of Georgia named Fordham vice president for medicine and dean of its medical school. Those in charge in those days at Chapel Hill soon realized their loss and in 1971 brought him back as dean of UNC’s medical school. Before long, they added to that title an additional one: vice chancellor for health affairs.

Under his leadership as dean, the N.C. Area Health Education Centers Program was established, linking the University with other in-state medical schools to provide service opportunities to physicians and increase the ratio of health professionals to North Carolina’s population. Today, AHEC remains headquartered at the School of Medicine and is one of the University’s best-known examples of effective public service and engagement with North Carolina. The AHEC program is considered a successful national model.

In 1977, President Carter tapped Fordham as assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. After two months on the job, he left Washington when he realized the position wasn’t what he’d expected.

“I went up there with the idea the presidency was committed to health programs and that they ought to be carefully worked through the people who had to provide the services, to build bridges between the government and the private sector,” he told The Greensboro Daily News in 1980. “I found out in three weeks on the job that with Mr. [Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph] Califano, he was going to run that department in a way that pretty much precluded my idea of what I could achieve up there. … It made a lot of sense for me to leave rather than wait a month or three months or six months.”

As dean, Fordham was said to have looked the part of a doctor-administrator, with dark-rimmed glasses, white coat and corncob pipe. He kept a blackboard in his office, and at any point in a conversation he was said to move to it and illustrate his remarks with chalked lines, words and symbols.

In December of his first year as chancellor, he suffered a mild stroke, leaving him with a limp and a weakness in his left side. But he still found time to play golf once a week, sometimes with then-basketball coach Dean Smith.

Among his honors are the William R. Davie Award, the trustees’ top award for service; the GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal; the University’s Distinguished Alumnus Award; the American Medical Association Award; and the N.C. Hospital Association Distinguished Service Award. He was a distinguished member of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

On campus, he is remembered with Fordham Hall, opened in 1991, which houses molecular biology and biotechnology research labs. A portion of N.C. 15-501 that passes through Chapel Hill is called Fordham Boulevard. The Christopher Fordham Award recognizes a graduating student for outstanding and creative leadership at the School of Medicine.

Christopher and Barbara Fordham established the Fordham Fund for Diversity in the Health Professions through the Medical Foundation of North Carolina Inc., the private fundraising arm supporting the School of Medicine. The Fordhams felt strongly about the importance of fostering diversity in the ranks of health-care professionals serving North Carolinians.

As chancellor, Fordham was an advocate of the rights of students to protest injustices, even at the risk of offending his bosses in the UNC System and in the N.C. General Assembly.

He recalled the anti-apartheid shanty-town protests in 1986 as the most poignant. It began with a 6 o’clock Monday morning phone call from a student who announced that he and a group of students wanted to build make-shift shanties on Polk Place. By the time Fordham reached the office, several shanties were in place, and soon the media attention was brisk.

“What they wanted was mostly symbolic, the divestment of University endowment funds, which were invested in companies that did business with South Africa,” Fordham recalled in a 1996 interview. “Of course, that is the antithesis of what the corporate world believes should be done or what anybody who deals with endowments believes should be done. The endowment ordinarily should be invested in the way that best produces a return to the University. So it was a great clash of values. The students and some faculty were asking the trustees to do something that went against the grain for trustees to do. And that, of course, catches the chancellor in the middle because it’s his or her job to protect the institution, protect its ideals and its integrity as well as its faculty, students and programs.

“I sided with the students, basically, and it was a wonderful thing that the chief administrative officer of the campus was going against [the trustees’] wishes on a matter of principle. Even the General Administration and the General Assembly tolerated my siding with the students. I made the motion to divest in the Trustees’ Investment Committee. It was defeated 7-1, but the student body president was right there with me. So we tried.”

After two weeks, the chancellor requested that the students dismantle the shanties on the coming Monday, just after a special trustees meeting on Friday when their message would have been clearly communicated. The students refused and said they would have to be arrested to be moved. On Monday, University physical plant employees removed the shanties, and police arrested five students.

The matter was handled civilly on all sides, and Fordham personally requested that the police pursue no criminal charges. Within months, the trustees divested from companies doing business in South Africa.

“The divestment was done carefully and responsibly,” Fordham said, “without violence to the portfolio. It contributed one small, little scintilla to the overall sanctions which this country undertook. And so we were part of what turned out to be a reasonably effective and humane effort.”

Fordham is given high marks for his efforts to increase research funding for the University. During his years, UNC rose from 24th to 16th in the nation in attracting research funding.

Fordham’s was an era of joyous exuberance at Chapel Hill, after two decades of pell-mell growth and stormy conflict. It was an era in which Carolina came to be recognized as being among the leading public universities in the nation, the quality of its undergraduate education vaulting to national attention, its reputation for top-flight research soaring, and funding for that research climbing at an unparalleled pace.


Fordham is survived by his wife, Barbara ’49, of Chapel Hill and a Carolina alumna; and three daughters: Pam Fordham Richey ’74 of Durham, Susan Fordham Crowell ’75 and her husband, James Crowell ’72, of Myersville, Md.; and Betsy Fordham Templeton ’81 and her husband, Michael Maloney of Durham, as well as six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Orange United Methodist Church Building Fund, 1220 Martin Luther King Blvd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514; the Fordham Fund for Diversity in the Health Professions, Medical Foundation of North Carolina Inc., (UNC School of Medicine), 880 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514; or the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, P.O. Box 4527, New York, NY, 10163.

The Fordham family will receive friends on Saturday, Aug. 16, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Orange United Methodist Church, 1220 Martin Luther King Blvd., Chapel Hill. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 17, at the University Methodist Church, 150 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill. Parking will be available in the University lot behind the church and at the University Baptist Church, 100 S. Columbia St., Chapel Hill.


Related coverage is available online:

  • Beyond the Campus
    In 1988, when Chris Fordham ’47 decided to retire as UNC’s sixth chancellor, The Daily Tar Heel may have summed it up best. Fordham – who demonstrated daily his vigor in maintaining the primacy of University academics over athletics, who stressed the relationship between the University and the state’s public schools – would not only be missed, the newspaper stated. He “will be a tough act to follow.”
    This in-depth feature appeared in the Carolina Alumni Review in July/August 1996 as part of the magazine’s series on the history of the chancellorship at UNC. It is available online to GAA members.
  • A Special Thank You to Barbara and Chris Fordham
    As Chris Fordham was stepping down as chancellor in 1988, Tom Lambeth ’57 paid tribute to him and his wife, Barbara, at the GAA Board of Directors’ spring meeting. He cited Fordham’s “extraordinary sense of fairness demonstrated throughout his relationships with colleagues and students and trustees and, most of all, with the people of the state. It is not easy to be fair always, and it doesn’t make everybody happy, but it is right, and it is Chris.”
  • A History of the Chancellorship
  • UNC Chief Executive Officers

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