Davidson president to lead UNC system

Board of Governors expected to pick him today to follow Erskine Bowles.

Staff WriterAugust 26, 2010 

  • The UNC system, created in 1971, is a far-flung empire of 17 campuses and 215,000 students. Its new leader will deal with a number of issues including:

    Growth: By 2017, about 50,000 new students are expected to enroll at public campuses.

    Money: A larger low-income population will challenge a system increasingly squeezed by a lack of state money.

    Technology: More students will enroll via online programs, collaborations with community colleges, and satellite sites and shared programs.

  • William Friday: 1971 to 1986

    C.D. Spangler Jr.: 1986 to 1997

    Molly Corbett Broad: 1997 to 2005

    Erskine Bowles: 2006 to 2010

  • Age: 60

    Current position: President, Davidson College since 2007.

    Education: Bachelor's degree, Davidson College; law degree, UNC-Chapel Hill.

    Family: Wife, Susan Donaldson Ross; children Mary Kathryn Elkins and Thomas W. Ross Jr.

    Prior work experience: Executive director, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, 2001-2007; director, N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, 1999-2000; N.C. Superior Court Judge, 1984-2000.

Once again, the University of North Carolina is poised to name as its new leader a native son with deep ties to the state's political establishment.

This morning the UNC system's Board of Governors is expected to name Thomas W. Ross, the current president at Davidson College, to succeed Erskine Bowles as the leader of the 17-campus system.

Ross, 60, worked extensively as a Superior Court judge and directed a major charitable organization before taking over at Davidson three years ago. He is set to be named to the UNC post at a hastily called "emergency" board meeting at 11 a.m. in Chapel Hill, according to five people familiar with the search process.

Bowles will step down after five years leading the system. Deeply rooted in the state's political structure, the former White House chief of staff and twice-failed U.S. Senate candidate had no prior higher education experience before taking the job in 2006. But Bowles won praise for navigating the university system through several dicey budget seasons while preaching transparency and accountability.

Ross, like Bowles a Greensboro native, also has political ties. A lawyer and former judge, Ross holds a bachelor's degree from Davidson and a 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.

Ross 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.

"He's worked in and around all the forces that work for good in North Carolina," said UNC President Emeritus William Friday, who ran the university system for three decades. "I think the university is indeed fortunate. Mr. Ross is a splendid example of a person dedicated to a life of public service."

D.G. Martin, a former UNC lobbyist and a onetime U.S. Senate candidate, said Ross follows the pattern of previous UNC presidents with weighty ties to state politics.

"He knows North Carolina - I don't want to say better than anyone - but he's in the top 1 percent or 100th of 1 percent," Martin said.

Like Bowles, Ross also has a strong commitment to being a public servant, Martin said, and has built a reputation as an honest and trustworthy advocate. "That's worth a lot," Martin said. "I believe Tom will have that credibility."

A quick study

Ross had no prior experience in higher education when tapped to lead Davidson three years ago. But he caught on quickly, said Robert Dunham, a Davidson trustee from Chapel Hill.

"He had such an array of experiences. He had a great deal of respect," Dunham said. "But he acknowledged that he'd be learning on the fly. And he did very well."

An elite private college just north of Charlotte, Davidson enrolls just about 1,700 students. UNC, in contrast, is a sprawling system of about 215,000 students.

Susan McAvoy, president of the board of directors of Davidson's alumni association, doesn't expect Ross to stumble.

"He'll be amazing," she said. "When you have his methodical mind, it doesn't matter how big [a problem] is because you break it into manageable pieces."

Fiscal woes to persist

Ross will take over a university system in flux. Bowles has spent the past 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 from the federal economic stimulus initiative.

Enrollment pressure

Meanwhile, demand for higher education is rising. The system expects to enroll an additional 50,000 students 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. In 2007-08, he earned $357,702 in total compensation, according to federal tax forms that Davidson, a nonprofit, must file.

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.

Staff writers Rob Christensen and Jane Stancill contributed to this report.

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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