A worrisome change for UNC

Tom Ross wasn’t ready to leave his job as UNC system president. Educators across the state also weren’t ready. Nor were most people who believe our state universities are an asset to be nourished, not an expense to be trimmed.

But Ross was made a lame duck Friday by a Republican-led UNC Board of Governors. It’s a move that’s both troubling and unsurprising.

There has long been tension between Republicans in Raleigh, who have consistently cut state funding to higher education, and Ross, a former Davidson College president who understood the value of strong N.C. colleges and universities. That tension was on display at least a couple of times in the past year.

In March, then-budget director Art Pope scolded university leaders in a formal and public memo that said their budget “simply is not realistic.” Two months later, Ross publicly sounded an alarm that Gov. Pat McCrory’s higher education budget might leave North Carolina and its university system less competitive.

Ross was right, then and now. While some states are smartly investing more in higher education, according to a 2014 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, North Carolina has cut its education spending more deeply than most. For students and faculty and anyone who wants to recruit businesses and talent to North Carolina, that’s plainly the wrong direction to go.

Ross certainly hasn’t had a spotless tenure as UNC system president. He and UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt were too defensive and plodding in their response to the academic/athletic scandal that rocked the university. Eventually, they ordered a truly independent probe that revealed the depths of the troubles, but that could have been done much sooner if they had wanted to confront, not duck, the issues.

But overall, Ross has been a strong leader through dangerous times. Now, a bigger danger lies ahead.

Who will the Board of Governors place in the job? It could and should appoint an educator or administrator who can navigate tight budgets while guarding against further erosion. Or it could take the path that South Carolina took last year, when powerful Republican Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell was appointed president of the College of Charleston despite not even being a finalist of the presidential search committee.

We hope politics doesn’t dictate who becomes the next UNC system president. We hope Republicans don’t install someone who embraces the destructive path that lawmakers have put the UNC system on.

But Tom Ross is now a lame duck president. He didn’t want to leave the job. The future of our once-great system has never seemed more unsettled.