The University of North Carolina Board of Governors voted unanimously today to name Thomas W. Ross as its new leader. Ross, 60, the current president of Davidson College, is a native son with deep ties to the state's political establishment.
Ross, who will succeed Erskine Bowles as the leader of the 17-campus system, worked extensively as a Superior Court judge and directed a major charitable organization before taking over at Davidson three years ago.
"With Tom Ross, there was no one single quality or characteristic that outshone the others. It was the entire package," said Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the Board of Governors. "He has a proven track record of success throughout his life."
In accepting the job, Ross first credited the four previous leaders of the modern university system -- Bowles, Molly Broad, C.D. Spangler Jr. and William Friday.
"To be asked to follow in their footsteps is daunting and, frankly, a little scary," Ross said.
He said it is tough leaving his job at Davidson.
"Davidson College is indeed one of the top liberal arts colleges in this country," Ross said. "It is the place that nurtered me and helped me grow as a student and again as its president. It has been an emotional struggle to decide to leave."
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.
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.
Speaking today in Chapel Hill, Ross said, "I am far from perfect and I am no miracle worker, but I am committed to the task at hand." Staff writers Rob Christensen and Jane Stancill contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-932-2008