Education

UNC system names new president

Posted August 26, 2010 11:00 a.m. EDT
Updated August 26, 2010 6:36 p.m. EDT

— The UNC Board of Governors on Thursday named Davidson College President Thomas Ross as the 17th president of the University of North Carolina system.

Ross called it "daunting and a little scary" to follow former UNC presidents like William Friday, C.D. Spangler and Erskine Bowles., but he pledged that he would do whatever necessary to move the 17-campus system – and the state – forward.

"I'm far from perfect, and I'm no miracle worker, but I am committed to the task ahead," he said in remarks after the board unanimously approved his appointment.

Bowles announced in February that he would retire at the end of 2010, after five years as UNC president.

Fifty-five to 65 candidates applied for the position, and the Board of Governors' search committee interviewed nine, said Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the board.

Ross will begin at UNC on Jan. 1, at an annual salary of $525,000.

He has led Davidson for three years, and he previously served as a Superior Court judge, director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts and executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem.

The 60-year-old Greensboro native earned a bachelor's degree from Davidson and a law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He also taught at the UNC School of Government.

Gage said Ross' combination of skills will allow him to take the reins of the UNC system quickly and lead with authority.

"Our nationwide search attracted talent from many different professional backgrounds and from every part of the country, but in the end, that long road led us back to North Carolina, to one of our own," she said. "In a time of great challenge and constant change, Tom Ross’s thoughtful leadership, his proven integrity, his deep understanding of North Carolina and his lifelong commitment to improving the lives of people in every corner of our state make him the perfect choice to lead the university in the years ahead."

Budget cuts among challenges

Gage says it's important that UNC's president be able to negotiate with lawmakers to get through the continuing budget crisis while still being able to see the bigger picture for the university's future.

State budget cuts over the past two years have forced UNC campuses to lay off hundreds of people and cut classes and programs. The Board of Governors approved hefty tuition increases last month to offset some of the lost funding.

A $3 billion budget deficit has been forecast for next year, which likely will lead to more spending cuts.

"This (budget situation) will end, and we want someone here beyond this crisis," Gage said.

Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, a member of the Board of Governors, predicted that Ross will work well with lawmakers.

"He knows the legislature inside out, and they know him and trust him," Mitchell said.

Ross said budget problems come and go, so UNC needs to create a financial model that can accommodate growing enrollments and withstand cuts in funding while remaining affordable for students and their families.

"What's most important is that this university be in a position to provide high-quality education to as many people as want it," he said.

The model could include aspects like developing new partnerships with the North Carolina Community College System or incorporating new technology, he said.

"We've got to figure out how to be ahead of it and get on top of it and use it to better educate students," he said of technology.

Decision was difficult

Leaving his alma mater for UNC was a difficult decision, Ross said, noting Davidson "nurtured me and helped me grow as a student and again as president."

Still, Ross said he felt called to lead North Carolina's university system, which is the oldest public university in the U.S. UNC offers the opportunity to develop young minds, encourage economic growth and lead to breakthroughs that benefit the world, he said.

"No institution is more important to North Carolina and her future than the University of North Carolina," he said.

Although Davidson has about 1,700 students and the enrollment at UNC's 16 university campuses tops 200,000, Ross said the institutions face many of the same challenges.

"There might be a difference in scale, but you are dealing with personnel problems, you are dealing with budget problems, you are dealing with technology issues," he said.

Ross said he doesn't have a specific agenda yet for UNC but said excellence would be his main goal. He said he wants to make time to get to know students and faculty on the various campuses.

Bowles discussed the presidency with Ross, which Ross said was helpful in his decision to accept the job.

"He is exactly the right guy," Bowles said of his successor. "He has everything I could have hoped for, and I'm not guessing at it – I've known Tom for 50 years.

"He's thought of things that I've never dreamed of. He'll be a great president for the university," Bowles said.