Frye, Emory's first provost, remembered for integrity, wisdom, leadership

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Nov. 21, 2017

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Billy E. Frye, shown here in 2001, was a respected scholar, educator and administrator who helped guide Emory during years of rapid campus and program development. He served as the university’s first provost and later as interim president and then chancellor. Emory Photo/Video

Billy E. Frye, a respected scholar, educator and administrator who helped guide Emory during years of rapid campus and program development as the university’s first provost, and later as interim president and then chancellor, died Nov. 14 near Clarkesville, Georgia. He was 84.

During his 15-year tenure at Emory, Frye was recognized as a steady, influential leader who demonstrated integrity, intelligence and deep moral stamina, with a gift for bringing humor and grace to even the most challenging deliberations. 

“Emory would not be what it is today without Billy Frye,” says President Claire E. Sterk. “We owe a debt to him for helping shape a culture of courageous inquiry among our faculty.”

“He was a gifted thinker, a brilliant administrator and a friend to many,” she says. “I am grateful for the many lasting contributions he made to our academic community. We will miss him greatly.”

Born in Clarkesville, Georgia, near the North Carolina border, Frye earned his bachelor’s degree from Piedmont College before coming to Emory for graduate school, receiving one of the biology department’s first doctorates.

He joined the faculty of the University of Virginia, then began a 25-year career at the University of Michigan, where he arrived as an assistant professor of zoology and departed as vice president for academic affairs and the school’s first provost. 

Frye 54G 56PhD returned to Emory in 1986 when then-President James T. Laney appointed him dean of the graduate school and vice president for research. Two years later, he was named Emory’s first provost and vice president for academic affairs.

“Billy Frye was as fine an academic leader as I have ever known,” Laney recalls. “His transparent integrity, his wisdom, his discerning and penetrating intelligence, and his droll wit made him a favorite with faculty and won their esteem and implicit trust.”

“He laid the foundation for a vibrant provost’s office at Emory and defined key issues the university faced. He was a dear friend and greatly beloved by his colleagues.”

Frye arrived as Emory was engaged in unprecedented growth and expansion — only a few years earlier, Robert W. Woodruff, legendary leader of the Coca-Cola Company, and his brother George Woodruff had given Emory a then-record gift of $105 million.

With one gift, Emory’s endowment increased by 60 percent, fueling new faculty hires and the creation of endowed faculty chairs, and the growth of academic programs and building construction.

The university’s swift growth created “a work in progress that needed to be grounded and given a sense of permanence, and Billy was perfect for that,” Laney says. “He brought calmness, order and consensus — somehow, he gave it all more stability.”

“Looking back, it was providential that we brought him to Emory,” he adds. “He was truly one of my dearest friends.”

Crafting a critical roadmap

As provost, Frye was influential in leading a campus-wide self-examination that led to the 1996 publication of Choices & Responsibility: Shaping Emory’s Future, a seminal document that outlined guiding principles for the university’s future.

At the time, the strategic planning trend at universities typically involved creating a wish list of thousands of items, recalls Susan Frost, former vice president of strategic development, who worked closely on strategic planning in the provost’s office and helped on the project.

“Many universities were doing things that were quantitative, but Billy’s idea was more about the heart of the institution, really promoting the importance of the voice of the faculty,” says Frost, now a private higher-education consultant.

Over the course of several years, Frye and Frost assembled small faculty groups, “asking what was on their minds as Emory moved forward,” she says. “It was a very painstaking, humanistic approach — very much like him, even though he was a scientist.”

The point was to discover “what the faculty wanted to see the university invest in, not only in programs, but in their own influence in the institution,” she says.

In fact, Emory would be very different today without Frye, she says. “I think he bound the faculty to the institution. He understood the dynamic of a university better than anyone I’ve ever known — it was totally in his bones.”

Upon his retirement in 2001, Frye cited Choices & Responsibility as one of his most important accomplishments. “It’s the faculty’s legacy,” he explained in an Emory Report interview.

“Whatever durability it’s got is because there was an enormous level of participation by faculty,” he said. “It was probably as nearly universal as anything I had ever seen in a university context, or can imagine achieving. It’s not my legacy — it’s ours — but I am proud of it.”

The document proved so popular that people from other universities soon requested copies for their leadership teams, recalls Frost, who will remember Frye as “a man of ideas.”

“He had a very strong sense of moral purpose and brought that to every single thing he did,” she says. “I miss him already.”

Library visionary

During the 1980s and 1990s, Frye was recognized as a national spokesperson and leader in preparing research libraries for the future by bringing attention to issues such as book preservation and digitization and the need for national collaboration among research libraries.

“He was so influential in talking about the loss of scholarly memory if we didn’t take steps to preserve library collections around the country,” says Deanna Marcum, former president of the Washington D.C.-based Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).

“Consequently, he’s largely responsible for galvanizing libraries to take the steps needed concerning the work that’s been done in preservation.”

Frye’s leadership in that crusade was recognized when the Frye Institute was named in his honor. Created through support from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, the institute was sponsored by Emory, EDUCAUSE and CLIR to develop within participants leadership skills necessary to integrate libraries and information technology in ways that would benefit higher education.

Based at Emory for 10 years, the institute brought together mid-career librarians and IT administrators from all over the world, including Africa, Europe, the Middle East, New Zealand and Australia. “Its reach was significant,” says Ginger Hicks Smith, retired director of campus and community relations for Emory University libraries.

Frye’s support was also felt in the growth of Emory’s acclaimed African American collections, now part of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library. When a group of faculty and alumni endorsed building African American archives to support teaching and a growing graduate program, Frye provided funding for a curator, recalls Linda Matthews, former director of Emory special collections and former director of libraries.

“He was truly a giant in higher education and research libraries,” Matthews says. “I knew library faculty who revered him. … That was true in institutions across the country. He was known everywhere.”

‘One of us’

After Laney left Emory in 1993 to become U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Frye served as interim president, then continued as provost once President William M. Chace took office in 1994. He then served as chancellor from 1997 to 2001.

Chace, who served as Emory's president until 2003, found Frye’s talents as a campus administrator were complemented by his character, integrity, humility and vision. “He had a deep, good human sense about people and institutions and was a great teacher to me,” he recalls. “Every day I worked with Billy was a better day.”

Beyond Frye’s leadership in crafting Choices & Responsibility, Chace praises his ability to provide faculty “with a deep understanding and confidence that he was on their side.”

“He grew up within the world of the faculty, knew what faculty folks wanted and needed,” Chace says. “Throughout campus there was a sense that Billy Frye was one of us, would honor our professionalism and help us.”

“While I respect and honor many, many colleagues at Emory, he has to be one of the best — one of the finest men I’ve ever met,” he adds.

Raised on a farm in the North Georgia mountains, Frye never lost a sense of humility and ability to connect with people, reflects Harriet M. King, who worked in his office as a senior vice provost of academic affairs. “Physically, he was a large man — probably 6’2” — a big North Georgia country boy at heart who came to the city and fit in,” she recalls.

Unassuming and down-to-earth, with a self-deprecating wit, “he was one of those people who had the ability to make his staff feel empowered,” she says. “By sheer force of personality, he made people comfortable in their own capacities, helped to bring out what was really good about them.”

Frye was an early champion of the roles of technology and interdisciplinarity within the academy, she notes. “He believed it was the way of the future, that sharing tools for understanding and using information from other disciplines enables each of us to explore our own disciplines with fresh eyes,” King says.

Among his many accolades, Frye received Emory’s Thomas Jefferson Award in 1997 for service to Emory through activities, influence and leadership. He was also awarded the Emory Medal, the highest alumni honor, and recognized as one of 175 Makers of History during the university’s 175th anniversary celebration in 2011.

During Emory’s 2015 Commencement, Frye received an honorary doctor of letters degree as an “alumnus, educator and renowned administrator.”

Outside of academic life, Frye was a master at growing both orchids and roses, volunteering his time and expertise with the Atlanta Botanical Garden and Atlanta Orchid Society.

Frye is survived by his wife, Elisa Ann Frye, and two daughters, Alice Frye 01PhD and Elisa Talitha Frye; a son-in-law, Joshua Peck; granddaughter Chana Perlman; and his brother, Jack Frye.

A campus memorial service is planned for spring 2018, with details to be announced.