Davidson president to be new UNC system leader

Staff writersAugust 25, 2010 


Dr. Thomas Ross, President of Davidson College, was a 1972 graduate of the school. He remembers well the last time Davidson College was in the Sweet 16. He was a freshman at the time.

L.MUELLER — lmueller@charlotteobserver.com

Davidson College President Thomas Ross is in line to be the next leader of the UNC system, sources tell The News & Observer.

Ross is expected to be hired by the UNC system's Board of Governors on Thursday. The board has called an emergency meeting for 11 a.m., and the election of a new president is the sole agenda item.

A 1972 Davidson graduate, Ross has led that small, elite private institution since August 2007.

An attorney and former judge, Ross received his law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. In 1984, he became the youngest judge in the state when then-Gov. Jim Hunt appointed him to N.C. Superior Court. He later directed the state's Administrative Office of the Courts and headed the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a charitable agency, before taking over at Davidson in 2007.

Ross would succeed Erskine Bowles, who is stepping down after a five-year term. Bowles, the former White House chief of staff, had no prior higher education experience when taking the job in 2006 but has won praise for navigating the university system through several dicey budget seasons while preaching transparency and accountability.

Ross has three years in higher education leadership, but at a far different institution. Davidson enrolls 1,700 students just north of Charlotte. The UNC system, in contrast, is a sprawling, 17-campus operation enrolling more than 200,000 students.

Ross will take over a university system in flux. Bowles has spent the last several years shaving hundreds of millions of dollars from the system's budget -- slashing positions and seeking savings in all corners to help the state deal with its ongoing economic woes. Those financial struggles are expected to continue in the next year or two, perhaps exacerbated by the loss of a great deal of temporary funding to higher education through the federal economic stimulus initiative.

Meanwhile, demand for higher education is rising. The system expects to enroll an additional 50,000 by 2017 and continues to invest in online and distance education initiatives to help meet that demand.

For Ross, the new job may bring a pay raise. Davidson is a private institution and thus isn't required to make employee salaries public. But in 2007-08, Ross earned $357,702 in total compensation, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education database gleaned from federal tax records.

The UNC system job could pay as much as $550,000, the ceiling recommended earlier this year by a committee of the UNC system's governing board. Bowles earns $478,000.

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