Emails show how UNC board struggled with explanation of Tom Ross ouster

UNC System president Tom Ross, left, confers with UNC Board of Governors John Fennebresque in the early minutes of the regular UNC Board of Governors meeting January 16, 2015. Ross was forced out of his job as system president by the board. He was replaced by Margaret Spellings on March 1, 2016.
UNC System president Tom Ross, left, confers with UNC Board of Governors John Fennebresque in the early minutes of the regular UNC Board of Governors meeting January 16, 2015. Ross was forced out of his job as system president by the board. He was replaced by Margaret Spellings on March 1, 2016.

The UNC Board of Governors struggled to explain its decision last year to force out former UNC President Tom Ross, records show, and the board’s former leader sought the advice of a public relations firm to quell the controversy.

In the aftermath of the board’s ouster of Ross on Jan. 16, 2015, some board members became increasingly concerned about the backlash against them, according to emails recently released to The News & Observer through a public records request. A Charlotte public relations firm came up with a list of talking points that was circulated among a small group of board members.

The talking points attempted to put a positive spin on the leadership transition when John Fennebresque, the former chairman, offered praise for Ross but no rationale for the change. The move blindsided insiders and observers, many of whom saw it as purely political. The board, almost all Republican, had turned over since the 2011 hire of Ross, who is a Democrat.

The list of points explained that the board members were trying to be civil and respectful of Ross: “It was not a time to discuss the qualities and characteristics we are looking for in a president because anything we said would have insinuated that Tom did not have such qualities.”

The document put forth vague ideas about the kind of leader it sought, but offered reassurance that the board was committed to the university and its excellence.

“WHY THE CHANGE? The Board believes any great institution such as our university can benefit new from (sic) leadership change – and from the new ideas and fresh approach that it brings,” the document said.

Ross would stay for another year on contract, but the atmosphere was tense. Chancellors were taken aback, faculty began to organize against the board and citizens wanted an explanation.

The News & Observer examined six months of emails – about 600 pages – from the UNC Board of Governors regarding the decision to end Ross’ presidency. The first batch of records, released last summer, showed that high-profile Republicans cheered the move, including two members of Congress. Several legislators phoned Fennebresque on the day Ross’ departure was announced; three days earlier, Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, left a message for the board chairman saying, in part, that he was “interested to talk about the Tom Ross situation.”

Berger said last year he didn’t direct the board to take any action but supported the decision.

Reached this week, Fennebresque declined to comment for this story. He resigned last fall just after the board chose Margaret Spellings as Ross’ successor. The Charlotte lawyer faced harsh criticism from some fellow board members about his handling of Ross and the ensuing presidential search, because some members felt excluded.

The morning of the board’s fateful meeting, then-Vice Chairman Lou Bissette warned Fennebresque about the chancellors’ reaction.

“Before you get here and into the fray, I wanted to let you know that there is great angst among the chancellors,” Bissette wrote to Fennebresque. “This came across very clearly at the reception and after. I think we ought to consider either personal calls or visits as soon as possible to encourage them and let them know the world is not coming to an end.”

Fennebresque agreed. “Predictable and manageable,” he responded.

‘Get some rest’

In the aftermath, board members communicated about how everything unfolded.

Former Chairman Hannah Gage, a Democrat, wrote to Fennebresque shortly after, saying the storm would blow over.

“Your team did what it felt had to be done,” her email said. “And I may disagree but I also understand that chairs have to make those tough decisions. This board completely supports you and sometimes a little dissent makes the board and the chair stronger. That really is the truth. Get some rest.”

But within 24 hours of the ouster, people began to bombard board members, demanding to know the reason Ross was let go.

Board member Joan MacNeill forwarded one such email to her fellow board members and wrote, “I received this email this morning and am guessing everyone else did as well. In the interest of coordinating the message going forward, please advise as to the response.”

Fennebresque sent the talking points to board committee chairs. He said they were prepared by his friend Steve Luquire, chief executive of LGA, an advertising and public relations agency in Charlotte. Luquire, Fennebresque wrote, is an expert “who helped me get through last Friday.”

‘Lovely emails’

Four days after the board’s vote on Ross, member Ed McMahan asked the chairman about whether he’d been getting negative feedback, “other than press.”

Fennebresque responded: “No. Of course random Chapel Hill faculty sent me some lovely emails.”

MacNeill was concerned. “My sense is that there are considerable questions and concerns that we need to address in a positive way,” she wrote.

That week, rumors swirled that faculty would take a vote of “no confidence” in the board.

Steve Leonard, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor and head of the system’s Faculty Assembly, wrote “with a broken heart and tears of great sorrow” to his colleagues. He refers to a conversation with an unnamed person.

“It pains me very, very deeply to say this: there is very little hope this Board can be turned without mounting an all-out assault in opposition to the destruction of public higher education in North Carolina. I had hoped we might be working on a long-game; instead, I was told we need to treat this as an end-game.”

Leonard then proceeded to chart out a strategy for faculty groups, using battlefield terms to suggest roles for the various campuses.

“If Chapel Hill and/or State leads from the front, this will look like a ‘flagship movement’ and it will be dismissed in Raleigh as the carping of spoiled professors,” he wrote “We cannot allow them to dismiss us – this has to be led from the front by ‘the fleet’ campuses, and led from the rear by the flagships.”

His email made its way to the board and Ross, who requested that faculty take no action, saying it would be counterproductive to his ability to lead in his remaining months on the job.

Fennebresque wrote to a small group of board members: “What’s really painful to me is the obvious inference that we do not love and cherish the university as much as Steve Leonard et al.”

As concern mounted about the reaction, board member Harry Smith wrote to the fellow committee chairs that it was very important the board stay united.

Bissette advocated for inclusivity. “The key words are ‘The Whole Board,’” he wrote to the smaller group. “We need to engage the entire Board. I think the concerns raised by some Members last week were valid to some extent. If we don't keep everyone well informed and give them a chance to be heard, we risk dividing the Board. That is the last thing we need now.”

Board member G.A. Sywassink urged calm and conjured up a national illustration, around the time of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. “We cannot react in any manner that shows irritation, as difficult as it will be. Recent example is Obama’s reaction to applause to his statement about no more campaigns. It was quick and cute, but took away from his intended message. He is a master of delivering a message even though it is a very flawed message in my/our opinion. It is very hard to not fall into the trap they want you fall into. Now that’s my 2 cents.”

Fennebresque began reaching out to other board members with individual phone calls.

‘Don’t play politics’

On Jan. 24, the Faculty Assembly approved a resolution that mostly heaped praise on Ross. But it sought an explanation, too. “The UNC Faculty Assembly calls upon the Board of Governors to articulate the rationale for their stated need for a ‘transition in leadership,’ a transition that implies a change in direction that has neither been discussed nor vetted with campus leadership, faculty, or the people of North Carolina.”

Meanwhile, people were emailing the board expressing grave concern about the university’s future. “The UNC System is the shining jewel in the crown of North Carolina,” wrote Lynne Walter. “To attack it is to diminish an important and essential component of our state, as well as reduce our standing in the United States and the world.”

Joy Bellinger of Greensboro signed an online petition, and wrote: “Don’t play politics with our education.”

National media began to publish stories about the upheaval in North Carolina, known for its strong higher education system. People were asking questions and not getting answers.

Bissette, who also serves on the private Wake Forest University board, remarked on it to Gage on Jan. 29: “I am in Winston-Salem for the WFU Board meeting. A lot of interest in the Tom Ross issue. I am trying to low key the situation but it is not easy.”

He also wrote to Fennebresque Jan. 31, saying there’s “a lot of chatter out there,” and it was important for the board to be on the same page about the search.

“This is going to be extremely important for the University and we must get the process right in order to be successful with the selection,” Bissette wrote. “The entire Board needs to be a part of this process and I for one think that we need to take our time in order to get it right.”

The board wasn’t always on the same page as the search process unfolded, although it voted unanimously for Spellings last October.

But there had been different viewpoints along the way, the emails show.

In early September 2014, after outgoing Budget Director Art Pope gave the board a lengthy and detailed presentation on the university budget, at least one member had an idea.

“Did anyone else besides me think after Art’s presentation to the BOG this week that he’d make an excellent president of UNC?” Steve Long posed to four fellow board members. Pope, a Raleigh businessman who funds conservative causes, foundations and candidates, has at times been a critic of the university.

On the day Ross was forced out, Fennebresque was asked about the possibility of a Pope presidency.

“Not happening,” he wrote.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill