UNC board pushing Ross out as system president

The UNC Board of Governors is forcing President Tom Ross to step down as the leader of the 17-campus University of North Carolina system at the beginning of next year.

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The UNC Board of Governors is forcing President Tom Ross to step down as the leader of the 17-campus University of North Carolina system at the beginning of next year.

Board Chairman John Fennebresque said Ross' age played no role in the push for a new president, and "to the best of my knowledge," politics also weren't a factor in the decision.

But during a sometimes contentious news conference Friday afternoon, Fennebresque declined to state a reason why Ross was no longer wanted as UNC president, especially when he went to great lengths to heap praise on Ross' performance.

"President Ross has our complete confidence in managing an incredibly complicated system in an area, education, that is changing every day," he said. "The board felt like, at an appropriate time, there should be a transition to a new president."

Ross will leave the school on Jan. 3, 2016, or when his successor is named, whichever is later.

The 64-year-old said he had no plans to retire at 65 but respects the board's prerogative to name its own president for the UNC system.

"I don't know how much longer (I planned to work), but I wasn't planning on leaving in the near future, but you know, I think the board did have a different timeline," he said. "We have to put the university first, and I know the board believes that, and I certainly do."

Ross said there was no discussion about him leaving until recently, and no one has expressed dissatisfaction with his work.

"It's not an easy thing for me because, you know, I love it, and I would love to be here forever," he said.

He will take a year of "research leave" after stepping down at half of his final salary as president – he now earns $600,000 a year – and will then assume a tenured faculty position in the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill, according to the terms of his employment contract.

Fourth District Congressman David Price, a former UNC-Chapel Hil professor, said he was shocked by the move.

"I am baffled by the board’s decision to forgo his leadership at such a critical point in the UNC system’s history and concerned about the signal it sends regarding our state’s commitment to higher education," Price said in a statement.

Gov. Pat McCrory didn't comment on Ross' departure, saying only that he looks forward to working with him for another year.

"I want to especially thank him for helping us build bridges of cooperation between our K-12 schools, community colleges and universities," McCrory said in a statement. "I look forward to continuing to work with President Ross to strengthen the university system as we work to implement our Innovation to Jobs Initiative."

Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is widely expected to run against McCrory next year, echoed Price's concerns about the circumstances of Ross' departure.

"I'm deeply concerned that the forcing out of President Ross is another blow to higher education in North Carolina at a time when we need universities to lead in innovation and critical thinking," Cooper said in a statement. "He has led the University system through difficult times, striving to give students the skills they need for tomorrow's jobs.”

Ross, who officially started with the UNC system on Jan. 1, 2011, led the system during a time when millions of dollars in budget cuts forced increases in tuition across the state.

"There's been a dramatic change in board leadership. There's been a dramatic change in the state's leadership, in policymakers. There's been about as bad an economy as we've had. So, it's been a challenging time to lead," he said. "I'm proud that we're here where we are today. I still think we're the best public university in America."

During Ross' tenure, the school's flagship campus in Chapel Hill has been rocked by an athletic scandal involving players' academics.

Fennebresque said the academic fraud scandal didn't tarnish Ross' reputation with the Board of Governors.

"President Ross handled that situation, managed that situation, led that situation in exemplary fashion," he said.

Ross and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt called in former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein to investigate the breadth of the scandal, and Wainstein issued a report in October detailing how hundreds of student-athletes for 18 years were steered toward classes that didn't meet and required only a paper to pass.

There also have been serious questions about the operation of Elizabeth City State University and its finances. While some called for closing the school, Ross brought in new leadership, and the budget was reduced as enrollment dropped.

"I support Elizabeth City State," Fennebresque said. "If effort and commitment can turn it around, we've got that."

Prior to leading the UNC system, Ross led Davidson College for three years, and he also 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 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.

The Board of Governors is trying to refine the search process and determine what it wants in a new leader before launching a nationwide search, Fennebresque said.

"We're not in a hurry because it's got to be the right decision," he said.


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