UNC system President Tom Ross talks about Echo Award, turbulent year and his future

UNC system President Tom Ross during UNC's commencement ceremony in May. Ross is the 2015 recipient of the Echo Award Against Indifference.
UNC system President Tom Ross during UNC's commencement ceremony in May. Ross is the 2015 recipient of the Echo Award Against Indifference. Raleigh News & Observer file photo

When University of North Carolina system President Tom Ross got a lunch invitation a while back from Charlotte’s Echo Foundation, he figured he might be hit up for a donation. Instead, when the foundation’s executive director and board chair joined him at the Carolina Club in Chapel Hill, they told him he would be the 2015 recipient of the Echo Award Against Indifference, given for his commitment to “justice, equality and open access to excellent education.”

Ross was overwhelmed. Men aren’t supposed to cry in public, he said last week, so “I don’t think I said anything for a minute, because I was too close to bursting into tears.”

If Ross was more emotional that day than usual, maybe it’s because of the year he’s had. In January, the university system’s Board of Governors cut his tenure short, forcing him to resign while praising his performance. The move was seen as a political ouster engineered by a board that had transformed from bipartisan to majority Republican since Ross became president in 2011. His contract ends in January. A new president could be named soon.

Ross had a long, varied public service career in North Carolina before he became university system president. A Greensboro native, he was a Superior Court judge for 17 years. He led the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts and chaired the committee that devised North Carolina’s structured sentencing system, which has become a model for other states. He also headed the Winston-Salem-based Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and served as president of Davidson College, his alma mater.

Ross, 65, will accept the Echo award at the foundation’s 17th annual gala Thursday in the McGlohon Theater. Also being honored: Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

Last week, Ross talked to Pam Kelley about regrets, accomplishments and whether he’ll soon leave his home state. His remarks have been edited for space and clarity.

Q. You’ve said that U.S. higher education is heading in the wrong direction. How do you see that trend manifested in North Carolina?

A. This is a long-term criticism that’s a trend in most states, and certainly in North Carolina. And it’s not just about money, but it is about a shifting of the cost of higher education from the public arena to parents and students, and we can see that in North Carolina.

If you look at data in 2008-09 and compare that to 2013-14, what you see is there’s been a shift of the amount of a student’s education that’s paid for by the state and the amount paid for by the students and their parents in tuition. In 2008-09, it was 72 percent state and 28 percent students and parents. And now it’s 62 percent state, 38 percent students and parents. That’s a pretty big change in a very short period of time.

Q. What’s been the hardest part of your job?

A. I think the most difficult part has been the transition (of Board of Governors members.) There’s not a single voting member of the board who was here when I started. So there’s been a tremendous amount of time and energy put into providing orientation and education for the board. We’ve received large classes of new members every two years.

And with that also comes revisiting issues you thought had been dealt with and put to bed, because you have new members who weren’t here when they were dealt with. I’m not complaining so much about the fact that we’ve had a transition, but it has made the time to lead a little more difficult, and I don’t think it’s a secret to say when you’re leading a board that didn’t select you, that it creates probably a little more challenging relationship.

Q. Many critics see academic freedom under attack in North Carolina, given the UNC Board of Governors’ decision to cut your presidency short and to close three campus centers linked to liberal causes. What would you tell those people?

A. I don’t believe this Board of Governors has an agenda that’s about ending academic freedom or damaging it. I don’t think that’s what we ought to be most worried about.

If one looks around the country at various trends and what’s happening, it’s a time people should be attentive to these issues, to academic freedom, and to freedom of speech generally.

Q. What is the proudest accomplishment of your presidency?

A. If I had to pick one thing, I think I’ve had at least some level of influence over leadership of our campuses. I’ve selected the chancellors on 11 campuses out of 17, but I’ve also worked with the others closely and feel like together we’ve developed and strengthened our leadership.

Q. How about your biggest regret?

A. That we haven’t been able to move faster. We have a bunch of things that we know will make a difference to student success, and we can’t implement them all because we don’t have the resources. I regret I haven’t been more successful in helping people understand how critically important faculty are. I’ve not been able to convince people that compensation of our faculty is a really important issue and that we’re losing critical people.

Q. Have there been days you regretted leaving the Davidson College presidency?

A. I have said more than once that it was the most difficult decision of my life to leave my alma mater, but I really felt, coming to this job, though I didn’t seek it, and I didn’t apply for it, and I resisted it, in the end I felt it was my public responsibility to be here.

Are there days I wish I could be at Davidson? Heck, yeah. But I don’t think there’s been a single moment that I said, ‘Gee, I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have come here,’ because I think I did what I was supposed to be doing.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. I’m really trying to think that through right now. For example, do I want to consider a job at another campus or system in higher education? Are there jobs in other areas, like philanthropy, that I may want to go to? Do I want to stay here, on the faculty?

If I want to stay in higher education, it probably means leaving North Carolina. That’s a difficult thing for me to think about, but it’s something I have to think about. So I’m going to try to figure all this out in the next four to six months and see where it lands.

Q. Have you had interest from other states?

A. Yes, I have. I don’t know that I’m at a point where I can talk about any of them. I’ve had inquiries from other states, from search firms. I’m listening and talking right now.

Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271

Tickets available

A limited number of $65 tickets for the Thursday awards ceremony and Ben Bernanke’s keynote address only are available through the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center Box Office at 704-372-1000 or at The ceremony begins at 6 p.m. at the McGlohon Theater, 345 N. College St.