University of North Carolina President Tom Ross will leave his job early next year, pushed out by the UNC system’s Board of Governors with little explanation except that it was time for a “leadership transition.”
On a day of drama and emotion Friday, the board voted on a one-year contract of a $600,000 base salary and other benefits for Ross, who will serve until Jan. 3, 2016. The board met for nearly two hours in closed session before releasing a joint statement with Ross.
“The board believes President Ross has served with distinction, that his performance has been exemplary, and that he has devoted his full energy, intellect and passion to fulfilling the duties and responsibilities of his office,” the statement said. “This decision has nothing to do with President Ross’ performance or ability to continue in the office.”
Afterward, responding to questions, board Chairman John Fennebresque of Charlotte said Ross’ age had nothing to do with the board’s decision. When asked if it involved politics, the board chairman said: “Absolutely not.”
But he did not offer other reasons, beyond the board’s view that the time was right to start a transition to another leader who might bring other assets. And he said it was too soon to know what qualities the board was looking for in the next president.
It didn’t take long for some to charge that the board’s move was purely political.
Without a clear explanation of why Ross, 64, was being forced from his job, political consultant Thomas Mills concluded politics was the reason. Ross is a former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a financial backer of progressive groups, and that may have hurt him, Mills said.
“Maybe what they want is somebody who’s going to kowtow to the legislature, and he has pushed back about some legislative priorities,” said Mills, who has worked for Democrats. “If they want that, what’s the point in having a system president?”
House Speaker Tim Moore said in an interview that he found out about Ross’ resignation in an email Friday morning.
Senate leader Phil Berger could not be reached for comment.
‘A wonderful president’
Moore, a former member of the Board of Governors and a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, said he knew of no complaints from legislators about Ross.
Fennebresque was adamant that there was no event that prompted the move and said he’d had no pressure from elected leaders. “I want to make a few things clear,” the chairman said. “This board believes Tom Ross has been a wonderful president. Fantastic work ethic. Perfect integrity. Worked well with our board.”
The negotiation with Ross happened in the past several days, Ross said, when Fennebresque came to see him. Fennebresque would not answer questions of when and how the decision was reached. When asked by reporters if he viewed the board’s action as political, Ross said simply that the board was committed to the university.
Some observers suggested the Republican-majority board simply wanted to put its stamp on the 17-campus system. Most current members were not on the board when Ross was hired in 2010.
Rumors were rampant that Ross was being pushed out to make way for Art Pope, a former state budget director and financier of conservative causes. On his blog about state politics, Mills wrote about the possibility of Pope as UNC president.
In an interview, Pope said he was “not seeking to be the next president” of the system and found out about Ross leaving in an online news article.
When asked about the possibility, Fennebresque said it wouldn’t happen.
Past UNC presidents have customarily retired at 65. Ross said he and the board were at odds over the timing of his departure.
“I’ve been enjoying my work with the Board of Governors, and I think we’ve accomplished a lot during the last four years,” Ross said. “When I came here, I made it clear that I wasn’t going to be ready to stop working at age 65, and I’m not ready to stop working at age 65. So I don’t know how much longer, but I wasn’t planning on leaving in the near future.”
He added that he respected the board’s prerogative to make the change, and the next year will allow for a smooth transition. “We have to put the university first,” Ross said, “and I know the board believes that and I certainly do.”
One board member, Marty Kotis, voted against the statement and contract. “I was opposed to it for the process and timing and lack of time for certain board members to review the materials,” he said.
Prominent Democrats were quick to question the board’s move.
“I’m deeply concerned that the forcing out of President Ross is another blow to higher education in North Carolina at a time when we need universities to lead in innovation and critical thinking,” Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said in a statement. “He has led the university system through difficult times, striving to give students the skills they need for tomorrow’s jobs.”
In what was a coincidence, Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, attended part of the board’s meeting to talk about plans to boost North Carolina’s commercialization of research and entrepreneurial culture. That will be largely connected to the work at the state’s research universities.
Later, he released a statement praising Ross.
“Tom Ross has been a great partner and a longtime friend of my family,” McCrory’s statement said. “I want to especially thank him for helping us build bridges of cooperation between our K-12 schools, community colleges and universities.”
Since he became president in 2011, Ross has managed the UNC system through major challenges – repeated state budget cuts, an academic and athletics scandal that rocked UNC-CH, and a political shakeup that resulted in a near-complete turnover on the 32-member governing board.
At one point, lawmakers floated the idea of closing the struggling Elizabeth City State University, but Ross was determined to save the campus and turn it around. He brought in new leadership, and the campus cut its budget dramatically as enrollment fell.
Despite the upheaval, Ross set about putting the university on a course for the future at a time of rapid transition for U.S. higher education. A former judge, he has had a calm hand and usually displayed a measured response.
A strategic plan adopted by the UNC Board of Governors in 2013 had the goal of raising the percentage of North Carolina adults with a four-year degree from 29 percent to 32 percent over a five-year period. The blueprint also aimed to move campuses ahead on online education, financial efficiency and key research areas deemed important to the state.
Though many agreed the plan was solid, it was intially slowed by a lack of state money during the budget crunch of the last few years. But the initiatives had more recently gained momentum, with some state funding and progress on some goals.
Ross has helped identify nine new chancellors in what has been a changing of the guard on the campuses. He has nominated new leaders at Appalachian State, Elizabeth City State, N.C. Central, UNC Asheville, UNC Wilmington, Western Carolina and Winston-Salem State. Searches are underway at UNC Greensboro, UNC Pembroke and UNC Wilmington.
New era of oversight
There was intense scrutiny during Ross’ tenure, as the UNC-CH athletic/academic scandals dragged on and the new board brought a new era of skeptical oversight. Several board members often complained that they didn’t have enough timely information from Ross and his staff. Others were supportive of Ross, and debates often broke out among members about the level of involvement of the board in management decisions.
“He did his best to play by the new rules, of which there were many, without betraying his own sense of honor and integrity,” said Hodding Carter III, a former UNC-CH professor. “He was a highly visible symbol of a different era and a different frame of mind from today’s ruling majorities, whether on the board or the state at large.”
Hannah Gage, an emeritus nonvoting UNC board member and former chairwoman, said she disagreed with the board’s action but respected its prerogative to make a change.
“I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job during four very difficult years; Tom dealt with budget cuts, political transitions, academic and athletic scandals and a very new and sometimes difficult board,” Gage said in an email. “In addition, he delivered what I think is the best strategic plan the university has ever had.”
In some ways, Ross faced the same issues as many other public university leaders after the recession, as he dealt with constrained state budgets, rising tuition and more demands for accountability.
From private to public
Ross could have avoided much of the stress if he had remained at his alma mater, the private Davidson College, where he was president before he took the UNC job. There were days when he longed for the quiet campus of Davidson, where he could walk down to the town soda shop and chat with students.
But public service won out.
“Today I think the board saw clearly in Tom Ross the traits that made him our choice four years ago – a man with enormous grace and integrity and a man who will put the university first, no matter how personally disappointing this decision is,” Gage said. “He’s an uncommon leader.”
After the weekend and the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Ross said he would be back in his university office Tuesday.
“This is not an easy thing for me, because, you know, I love it,” Ross said. “I would love to be here forever.”