Fennebresque steps down from UNC Board of Governors

John C. Fennebresque, chairman, smiles before the UNC Board of Governors meet at the Spangler Center in Chapel Hill on Friday, Oct. 23, 2015, to elect the next president of the university system.
John C. Fennebresque, chairman, smiles before the UNC Board of Governors meet at the Spangler Center in Chapel Hill on Friday, Oct. 23, 2015, to elect the next president of the university system.

Embattled UNC Board of Governors Chairman John Fennebresque resigned his seat Monday, saying it was time for new leadership on the university system’s governing board.

The resignation was effective immediately, after a turbulent process to find a new UNC system president. On Friday, the board hired Margaret Spellings, former U.S. education secretary for President George W. Bush. She will start the job in March, succeeding Tom Ross, who was pushed out by the board.

“With the search completed, I believe now is the time for a fresh start for our University system and its 17 campuses as well as for this Board of Governors,” the Charlotte lawyer said in a statement. “So today I am stepping down from the Board to make way for and encourage new leadership. Significant challenges lie ahead for the system as it continues to provide the unparalleled education our students deserve. I want to thank the Board of Governors, my family and friends, my law firm and my many supporters who have rallied around me throughout the difficult process of change and the great promise of opportunity for the University of North Carolina system.”

The current vice chairman, Asheville attorney Lou Bissette, will assume the chairmanship until the board can elect a new leader, after a required 30-day waiting period. Fennebresque’s seat on the board will remain vacant until the state Senate convenes next spring and elects a successor to serve out the remainder of his unexpired term.

The unanimous vote for Spellings contradicted what had been a divisive process.

For weeks, pressure mounted for Fennebresque, 68, to resign, as legislators, faculty and fellow board members complained about the nature and secrecy of the search. A number of members sent scathing internal emails, calling for Fennebresque to leave and warning that his support of Spellings would compromise the candidate. One member, former lawmaker Thom Goolsby, wrote that anyone advanced by a Fennebresque-led board would be “fruit from a poisonous tree.”

Goolsby’s email noted that other members had already privately asked Fennebresque to resign. “I believe it is only fair to inform your candidate that a majority of the board lacks confidence in your continued leadership and explain to her how your actions have alienated our legislature which has been supportive of the University,” Goolsby wrote.

Ross ouster controversial

The search was the latest controversial episode in Fennebresque’s tenure. Some members had blamed him for what they said was the botched ouster of Ross, even though they agreed with the outcome. Just after the decision in January, Fennebresque and Ross appeared together in an awkward news conference at which the chairman heaped praise on the president but did not offer a reason for forcing him out.

That led to widespread speculation that Ross’ ouster was politically motivated, and emails later revealed that prominent Republican politicians cheered the move. Ross is a Democrat; the board is mostly Republican. Fennebresque is a Republican and donor to GOP candidates.

An email obtained by The News & Observer suggested that Fennebresque took the action largely on his own.

“I think you should share with the board and stakeholders: 1) what actions you took, 2) why you took them, 3) who was involved in the decision making and 4) what happens next,” board member Marty Kotis wrote to Fennebresque on Feb. 4.

“A synopsis of the information you’ve shared with me is that you met with Tom on your own on the 9th to discuss his retirement based on informal discussions with various board members, Tom went ‘crazy,’ you drafted an agreement with the input of the committee chairs and officers, and you didn’t want the press to know so you kept many of us in the dark until a formal announcement could be made along with a vote,” Kotis continued. “I’m still not clear on all that happened and would like to hear Tom’s account as well. In all my company’s personnel actions, I always have a second person in the meeting for that very reason.”

Ross, 65, who will step down in January after a five-year presidency, praised Fennebresque’s dedication Monday.

“While John Fennebresque and I may have had our differences at times, he truly loves the University of North Carolina and has been a tireless, passionate advocate for it,” Ross’ statement said. “He has served the UNC system with great dedication and commitment.”

Not long after the Ross decision, the board took considerable heat for its review of centers and institutes on UNC campuses, which some viewed as a political exercise. In February, over a loud protest, the board eliminated three of them, including UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, whose director had been an outspoken critic of the Republican political leadership. The other two centers that were closed dealt with biodiversity and voter engagement.

Linked to budget success

More recently, the board has won significant victories during Fennebresque’s chairmanship. It had one of the best budget years in memory, and the university stands to get nearly $1 billion in construction money next year if voters say yes to a bond package recently approved by the legislature.

Last week, Fennebresque did not appear at a news conference with Spellings, and he was subdued during the board’s meeting. But he said he had tears in his eyes when he proclaimed the choice of Spellings “magnificent.”

On Monday, Fennebresque’s statement said he was delighted that the board could bring in “a nationally proven and accomplished leader” to serve as the next president.

“Margaret Spellings has the experience, vision and courage we need to navigate the forces transforming higher education,” his statement said. “She is skilled in working with education professionals and a variety of constituencies to bring people together, and she has expressed her strong desire to more vigorously focus attention on providing educational opportunities for all people.”

Neither Fennebresque nor Spellings could be reached for comment Monday.

Champ Mitchell, chair of the board’s strategic planning committee, praised Fennebresque.

“John Fennebresque accomplished much during his term,” Mitchell said in a statement Monday. “Most importantly, he initiated the hiring of a new President who has the ability to lead transformative change. Higher education in this country is going through substantial and often disruptive changes. Our University has no choice but to change how it delivers education and make it more affordable and more efficient.”

Ann Goodnight, co-vice chair of the board’s presidential search committee, said of Fennebesque: “Throughout the search process, John supported us so that we could do our best work. Empowering others to lead is an important characteristic of a true leader, and I thank John for it.”

The chairman of the McGuireWoods law firm, based in Richmond, Va., issued a statement welcoming Fennebresque back full time after his board service.

“John has given his heart and his soul in the year and a half of his chairmanship of the UNC Board, and all of us at McGuireWoods are extremely proud of what John has accomplished,” said the statement from Richard Cullen.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill