Christopher Fordham, UNC's sixth chancellor, Former UNC School of Medicine Dean, passed away on Thursday (August 14, 2008)

August 14, 2008 — Dr. Christopher Columbus Fordham III, former dean of the School of Medicine and chancellor emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who led Carolina during a span of major success in the 1980s, died early today at UNC Hospitals. A longtime Chapel Hill resident, he was 81.

Christopher Fordham, UNC's sixth chancellor, Former UNC School of Medicine Dean, passed away on Thursday (August 14, 2008) click to enlarge Dr. Christopher Columbus Fordham III

Note: Past and present University leaders’ comments on the significance of Fordham’s influence at Carolina are included at the end of this story.

“Our hearts and prayers go out to the Fordham family and their friends,” said Chancellor Holden Thorp. “Chancellor Fordham was one of this University’s greatest leaders. When I earned my undergraduate degree in chemistry, his signature appeared on my diploma.

“As a graduating senior, I couldn’t appreciate the challenges he faced as chancellor,” Thorp said. “Today, I know that for him it was a labor of love, and that we all are so fortunate to continue benefitting from his wisdom and decisive action. Chancellor Fordham is rightly regarded as the driving force behind a period of extraordinary success at Carolina. We will never forget his deep love for this place.”

As chancellor from 1980 to 1988, Fordham oversaw a major revision of the undergraduate curriculum and led the push to significantly boost faculty research funding, which grew from $56 million to $105 million. Under his leadership, the state increased the University’s budget. He renewed the focus on private fundraising, putting Carolina among the nation’s top 20 public institutions for contributions and increasing the endowment from $30 million to $130 million.

During this period, the University’s national reputation as a high-quality public research university – a “public Ivy” – also grew. The University completed several key new academic and athletics buildings during his tenure, and he led efforts to enhance the University’s service to North Carolina, especially in the public schools.

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 the sixth chancellor. The bell rings to mark the most significant University occasions. The University will also lower the North Carolina flag in Polk Place this weekend to half-mast to honor Fordham.

Fordham was a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. He also chaired and was a Distinguished Service Member of the Association of American Medical Colleges, and earned the prestigious “master status” from the American College of Physicians.

A native of Greensboro, Fordham is one of 18 members of his family to attend the University. He devoted five decades of service to the University, including his tenure as chancellor.

Fordham began as a UNC undergraduate before joining what was then a two-year medical program and going on to earn a pre-medical degree as well as a certificate in medicine in 1949. He received a medical degree from Harvard University in 1951.

After an internship at Georgetown University Hospital and a residency at Boston City Hospital, Fordham returned to Chapel Hill and the University as a senior assistant resident in medicine and a fellow at the new four-year medical school.

After a two-year stint as a U.S. Air Force medical officer, he started a private medical practice in Greensboro. He came back to Chapel Hill as an instructor, professor and associate dean in the medical school. The Medical College of Georgia recruited him in 1969 to become vice president for medicine and dean. Fordham returned to Carolina in 1971, becoming dean of the School of Medicine and a professor in the school until 1979.

Under his leadership as dean, the North Carolina Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) 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.

During part of Fordham’s tenure as dean, he also served the University as vice chancellor for health affairs. In 1977 he was named acting assistant secretary for health and acting Surgeon General of the United States at the request of President Jimmy Carter.

UNC President William C. Friday hired Fordham to succeed Chancellor N. Ferebee Taylor, who took office in 1972. Fordham is the only medical doctor to serve as the University’s chancellor.

Other accomplishments during Fordham’s tenure as chancellor included overseeing construction of the Dean E. Smith Center; Sitterson Hall, which houses the computer science department; the Hanes Art Center, home of the art department; the Walter Royal Davis Library; and the Kenan Center, home of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. He nurtured innovative efforts to partner with public schools that focused on strengthening professional development resources available to math and science teachers. He also championed the Lyndhurst Program, which supported a year of master’s study for new teachers earning undergraduate degrees at UNC. The new teachers agreed to teach at least three years in North Carolina or Tennessee public school classrooms.

Fordham’s honors include induction as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association Award and the N.C. Hospital Association’s Distinguished Service Award.

In 2002, Fordham received the William Richardson Davie Award, the highest honor bestowed by the University’s Board of Trustees, for his dedication, commitment, loyalty and service. Presented annually, the Davie Award recognizes extraordinary service to Carolina and to society. The University also presented him with its Distinguished Alumnus Award, given to alumni for outstanding contributions to humankind.

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.

In 1988, the University’s biotechnology building was named Christopher C. Fordham Hall. The Christopher Fordham Award recognizes a graduating student for outstanding and creative leadership at the School of Medicine. He also received the General Alumni Association’s Distinguished Service Medal and was selected for membership in the Order of the Golden Fleece, a campus honorary society. The U.S. 15-501 Bypass in Chapel Hill is named Fordham Boulevard in his honor.

Fordham is survived by his wife, Barbara, of Chapel Hill and a Carolina alumna; and three daughters: Pam Fordham Richey of Durham, Susan Fordham Crowell and husband James Crowell of Myersville, Md.; and Betsy Fordham Templeton and 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, NC 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 p.m. 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.

Past, present University leaders share thoughts on Chancellor Fordham’s legacy

Colleagues of Chancellor Christopher C. Fordham III offered the following comments today about his legacy:

William C. Friday, president emeritus, University of North Carolina system:

“I chose Chris Fordham to serve as chancellor because I knew he represented the rich traditions and historic leadership that the university at Chapel Hill was so well known for. He was a man of very high principles, and a man who gave to an uncommon degree of himself and his intelligence in service to this place. He and his dear wife, Barbara, were a great team during their tenure at Chapel Hill.”

Chancellor Emeritus William Aycock, who served from 1957 to 1964:

“I was very fond of Chancellor Fordham. He was a great leader for the University. Not only was he interested in the humanities, but he was, of course, a renowned leader in the medical field. He will be sorely missed.”

Chancellor Emeritus Paul Hardin, who succeeded Fordham as chancellor, serving from 1988 to 1995:

“Following him as chancellor was a privilege and a joy. He was unfailingly cordial to his successor. 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. We use that shared experience to deepen our friendships. I loved the man very much and admired his courage. He performed his duties despite having a serious illness his first year in office. He was a man of determination and grace. He also was the most devoted and loyal fan of our beloved university in Chapel Hill. He will be sorely missed.”

William McCoy, who served as interim chancellor from 1999-2000:

“Dr. Fordham was an excellent leader who loved the University of North Carolina. He moved Carolina forward with his very positive leadership. He was a good personal friend of mine and was always very supportive of me when I was involved with the University. He always had the best interest of the University at heart in everything that he did.”

Chancellor Emeritus James Moeser, who served from 2000-2008:

“The University and State of North Carolina have lost one of their greatest leaders in Chris Fordham. As one of my predecessors, Dr. Fordham was a source of great support, advice and counsel for me during the eight years I served as chancellor. He was a tower of personal strength and integrity who loved Carolina deeply and passionately.

“Susan and I had many wonderful times together with Barbara and Chris Fordham and regarded them as great friends. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Barbara and the Fordham family, and we will remember Chris not only for his many contributions to the University but also his personal warmth and friendship.”

Dean Smith, retired men’s basketball coach at Carolina:

“We’ve been close friends since I arrived here in the ’60s. It was fun to be with him and his wife. He was a golfing partner and a very good one, I might add. We had a foursome for a number of years with (the late) Dr. Earl Somers (a local psychiatrist) and Simon Terrell, (head of the N.C. High School Athletic Association. We traveled a great deal to play different golf courses from California to North Carolina. We got to know each other really well.

“Chris had a remarkable mind. He did so much, as dean of the medical school and as chancellor. He loved this University so much. He did everything he could for the University but also took the time to follow football and basketball. We’ll miss him very much.”

Dr. Stuart Bondurant, professor and dean emeritus, UNC School of Medicine:

“Dr. Christopher Fordham was a person of intense and consistent commitment to his family, his profession, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and many important social causes. 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. As chancellor, he strengthened the University in many ways. 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.”

Dr. Jeffrey Houpt, dean emeritus and professor, UNC School of Medicine:

“Dr. Fordham was one of the most revered leaders in the school. He was responsible for the AHEC (Area Health Education Centers) Program’s great success and remained to be the person we would all go to for advice.”

Dr. William Roper, vice chancellor for medical affairs, chief executive officer of the UNC Health Care System and dean of the School of Medicine:

“On behalf of the entire UNC Medicine family, I want to express our profound sadness on the passing of our dear friend, Dr. Christopher C. Fordham III. We extend our condolences to Mrs. Fordham and the entire family. Dr. Fordham was a giant in American medicine and higher education. He led the UNC School of Medicine and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to new heights of excellence, all the while increasing our focus on serving the people of North Carolina – all of them.”

Dr. Garland Hershey, professor of orthodontics, UNC School of Dentistry, who was vice chancellor for health affairs under three chancellors including Fordham:

“This is a sad day. He was a wonderful human being. Chris Fordham was an enormously talented and articulate advocate for this University and what it could do for the people of North Carolina. 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.

Once I asked him if he would come and meet with a group. I introduced him and said “We are pleased to have Chancellor Fordham with us,” and he immediately corrected me and said, “Mr. vice chancellor, my name is Chris.” That sums him all up, as does his absolutely overriding love of the University and all it stands for.”

Dr. Robert Bashford, UNC professor of psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology:

When Bashford was a first-year medical student at Carolina, “Dean Fordham called me into his office sometime after Christmas. I had gotten on his radar because I wasn’t taking practice exams and going to class as much as I should. He was the nicest man, and he was so encouraging, gracious and supportive that I had to run the story around in my head for a while to realize what he had told me, which was how much academic trouble I was in. It was exactly what I needed.” Bashford started to study and go to class; Fordham called him in periodically during the year. “He proposed that we would collaborate, and I would get through the year. At the end of the year, he called me in and said, ‘You have passed this year, you are doing what you need to be doing,’ and he laughed and said and ‘Some people finished below you.” Now, Bashford says, “I often wonder what would have happened if that conversation had not taken place.”

News Services contacts: L.J. Toler, laura_toler@unc.edu, (919) 962-8589 or (919) 219-6374, or Mike McFarland, (919) 962-8593, mike_mcfarland@unc.edu

[top]