New UNC system president plans 'inclusive' decision-making

Posted September 2, 2010 3:55 p.m. EDT
Updated September 2, 2010 9:20 p.m. EDT

— Tom Ross has a big job leading Davidson College and its 1,800 students, but he's stepping into a more daunting role as head of the University of North Carolina system's 17 campuses and more than 200,000 students.

Ross will begin at UNC on Jan. 1 at an annual salary of $525,000. He follows Erskine Bowles, who announced in February that he would retire at the end of 2010 after five years as UNC president.

Ross says he's prepared to tackle historic budget problems. He stops short of calling for a tax increase or bond to keep state schools affordable, but points out excellence goes beyond budgets.

"We've got to keep our eye on the ball. We've got to understand how important higher education is to the state's future," he said.

President-elect Ross said he believes his most important role will be to build coalitions, listen to students and faculty and tap into his deep North Carolina connections to lawmakers, business leaders and educators.

"We've got to work together," he said. "My own style tends to be one of being inclusive, involve as many people as possible in decision-making."

Ross said he feels both sadness and excitement leaving the school that he says changed his life. As for his next job, he says he doesn't know enough yet to offer an opinion on the UNC football investigation.

"We all hope this sort of thing doesn't change the long term of the University of North Carolina," he said.

Ross downplays conservatives who criticize his past non-profit ties to left leaning causes. Instead, he says measure him by his leadership.

"I don't care where you are philosophically. You're going to believe in the strength and power of education. So my job's going to be, from whatever angle they're coming from, is to pull them together and provide the best for North Carolina," he said.

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 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.