Tom Ross was an unlikely UNC President from the outset. He had a long career as a superior court judge, with shorter stints as president of Davidson College and head of the Z Smith Reynolds Foundation.
This morning, when he faced reporters after it was announced that he would be leaving his job – or, as the Board of Governors’ statement put it, they would “begin the process of leadership transition” – Ross looked shocked and disappointed.
“It's not an easy thing for me because I love it and I'd love to be here forever,” Ross said. “But the Board has the legal right and responsibility and prerogative to think about transitions and to move the University in a way they think is best.”
When he took office in 2011, Ross had never served any position in public higher education, and he was not an overtly political figure.
Board chair John Fennebresque sat next to Ross at the news conference announcing the parting of the ways, and he spent a good bit of time praising the outgoing President.
“President Ross has our complete confidence in managing an incredibly complicated system in an area, higher education, that is changing every day,” Fennebresque said.
That vote of confidence is in direct contrast to the 31-to-1 vote by the Board to extend Ross’s contract by just one year and to begin the process of looking for his replacement.
Fennebresque was pressed repeatedly to explain why the decision was made.
“I think the board felt like, at the appropriate time, there should be a transition to a new President and we had a timeline that we were thinking along and President Ross had a different timeline,” Fennebresque explained. “And that’s it.”
Fennebresque got more animated when asked if politics played a role.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I can’t tell you the registration of my fellow board members. They haven’t asked me mine. It doesn’t come up.”
Fourteen of the 16 members of the Board of Governors appointed in 2013 are Republicans – the other two are unaffiliated. All Board of Governor members are appointed by the State House and Senate – Governors do not appoint board members.
Governor Pat McCrory attended today’s Board of Governors meeting, but left before the vote on Ross. He later issued a statement that called Ross a “great partner” and “longtime friend of my family.”
“This has been a period of transition for the University in a lot of different ways,” Ross said. “There’s been a dramatic change in Board leadership. There’s been a dramatic change in the state’s leadership and policymakers. There’s been about as bad an economy as we’ve had. So it’s been a challenging time to lead.”
Those changes led the General Assembly to significantly cut the UNC system budget. Ross also hired nine chancellors and guided the system through a major academic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Fennebresque praised Ross for his handling of that cheating scandal and stated that it played no role in the change in leadership.
“We’ve got to get together and articulate the characteristics and traits of a new president,” Fennebresque said. “So we’re not in a hurry because it’s got to be the right decision.”
There’s been speculation in Raleigh that a potential candidate might be Art Pope. The former State Budget Director, CEO of Variety Wholesalers, and major donor to conservative causes is a highly polarizing figure.
Pope has said he is not seeking the job.
Ross will stay on the job, as UNC System president, for another year - or until a successor is named.