Newly public emails confirm what was already North Carolina’s worst-kept secret: The ouster of UNC system President Tom Ross was draped in politics.
When the Board of Governors announced its move Jan. 16, leaders failed to explain what precipitated it. In a baffling press conference, they sang Ross’s praises but did not say why they were getting rid of him. They also were unable to articulate what they would be looking for in a successor. One thing was certain, though, they said: Politics had nothing to do with it.
The (Raleigh) News & Observer has now gone through 300 pages of BOG emails and finds the whiff of politics repeatedly.
Three days before the Ross announcement, Senate leader Phil Berger left BOG Chair John Fennebresque a message, the N&O’s Jane Stancill reports. A staffer in Fennebresque’s office summarized Berger’s voice mail: “Had conference call yesterday. He feels appropriate progress is proposed in reference to those institutes. It seems like everyone is in a good state. Headed in right direction. Interested to talk about Tom Ross situation.”
Republican members of Congress George Holding and Virginia Foxx emailed Fennebresque their congratulations on the day of Ross’s ouster. And several Republican legislators, including Berger, Bob Rucho and Jeff Tarte, along with GOP benefactor Art Pope asked Fennebresque to return their calls that day.
Fennebresque says he doesn’t remember talking to Berger; Berger says he doesn’t remember talking to Fennebresque. But there are the emails, suggesting the two were indeed talking about it.
Other emails show Parks Griffin, chair of Gov. Pat McCrory’s inaugural committee, was concerned that UNC Wilmington might not hire a conservative as its new chancellor. He said “Ross stacked the (search) committee” to hire a liberal, when in fact Ross did not appoint the committee, the campus trustees did.
These and other emails are symptomatic of a university transitioning from perhaps the best public system in the nation to one engulfed by political winds. There is no question that ousting Ross was the board’s prerogative, as its defenders say. But that doesn’t mean it was the best move for the university system, nor does it mean that board members were honest with the public about what drove it. Ross is a leader filled with integrity, work ethic and love for North Carolina and its university system. The BOG itself acknowledged that.
Yet they got rid of him anyway. The new emails show Fennebresque bristled at former BOG chair and Democrat Hannah Gage saying publicly that she hoped the board would be able to find Ross’s equal as a successor. But that is precisely the concern on the minds of many North Carolinians: We had a model leader in a crucial role, and finding his equal will be a tall task.
It all raises questions about the vision BOG members and their political backers have for the University of North Carolina system. They did little to articulate it when firing Ross. We hope they won’t further politicize the university’s mission of conducting vital research and educating tomorrow’s leaders. Their choice for Ross’s replacement will be crucial, and revealing.