CHAPEL HILL — Though wise in the ways of public service and state politics, Tom Ross was still a higher education neophyte three years ago when he took over as president of Davidson College.
So to better understand the inner workings of his alma mater, Ross sat down and thumbed through its budget.
"Where the money goes is where the priorities are," Ross explained Thursday after being officially named as the fifth president of the University of North Carolina system. "I'll do that here as I did there."
The public university system that Ross will preside over starting Jan. 1 will have a smaller budget than it used to. The system has cut nearly $700 million over the past four years. Ross will be charged with limiting future cuts while continuing revenue streams for enrollment growth, student aid and other top university priorities.
But Ross, 60, doesn't appear daunted.
"Budget challenges are always difficult, but I don't think we ought to spend all of our time dwelling on it, because I think you have to continue thinking about the future," he said.
Ross's view of future budget battles is likely colored by his previous successes in the hallways of the state legislature. In the early 1990s, Ross, then a Superior Court judge, led a 23-member commission that pushed through reforms to the state's criminal sentencing laws. Those changes won wide praise and raised Ross' stature as a public servant.
"I've had a pretty good amount of time working with the legislature," he said. "I don't shy from it in the least."
'The entire package'
His experience as a judge, reformer, foundation expert and college leader swayed UNC system leaders, who chose him from a pool of about 50 applicants to succeed current President Erskine Bowles. The workaholic former White House chief of staff will step down at the end of the year.
Ross will earn $525,000 annually, slightly less than the $550,000 ceiling that university officials had previously defined.
"We were looking for a rare combination of skills," said Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the UNC system's Board of Governors, which hired Ross on Thursday. "With Tom Ross, there was no one single quality or characteristic that outshone the others. It was the entire package."
Like Bowles, Ross is a politically connected product of North Carolina, and his savvy in dealing with legislators will be tested immediately. But his varied background gives him an edge, said John Sanders, the former director of the Institute of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has also directed the administrative office of the state's court system and headed the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a philanthropic organization.
He's ready to go
"His whole working career has been in North Carolina," said Sanders, who also served the UNC system as its vice president for planning and as a member of its governing board. "He has a lot of familiarity with the state, so he'll bring a lot of credibility and knowledge to the job that others would have to establish."
In his first year, Ross may be dealt some legislative wild cards. Along with the annual battle for state funding, the fall elections may change the political landscape.
Still, Ross won't have a big learning curve, said Burley Mitchell, the former North Carolina chief justice who is now serving on the UNC system's governing board.
"He knows the legislature, and they know him," Mitchell said. "He can go to work this afternoon."
Although he has had to eliminate jobs, Ross concedes he hasn't had to go through what Bowles did last year in cutting more than 900 positions across the system.
"It is, I'm sure, a very difficult thing," Ross said. "I don't look forward to that being a possibility, and I'm always hopeful it won't be necessary."
From small to huge
Davidson is a small, well-regarded private institution of about 1,700 students just north of Charlotte. By comparison, the UNC system is a 17-campus goliath of 220,000 students and a budget of more than $7 billion.
Ross has led organizations large and small and sees similarities.
"What I think I've learned is that a lot of the issues, problems and strengths you face are the same," he said. "There may be a difference in scale."
A collaborative leader
At Davidson, Ross directed a long-term strategic planning process that will lead the college to expand academic programs and its international student enrollment. The process included input from all groups on campus, said Mackey McDonald, chairman of Davidson's Board of Trustees.
"One of the strengths of his leadership was the sharing of responsibility across these different groups," McDonald said.
Ross also proved an adept fundraiser. Last year, Davidson recorded its best fundraising year ever, bringing in $55 million in private donations.
He was also praised at Davidson on Thursday for wanting to be a part of the campus culture. He'd regularly invite college seniors over to his house for dinner. A "tremendous" basketball fan, he usually was one of the loudest people cheering at games.
A 1972 Davidson graduate, Ross said Thursday that the decision to leave his alma mater was "heart-wrenching."
"It is the place that nurtured me and helped me grow as a student and again as its president," he said. "It has been an emotional struggle to decide to leave."
In speeches at Davidson, Ross was known for recounting exactly how many days he had been on the job - a reminder, he'd say, of how blessed he was to be there.
His final day there will be Dec. 31 - his 1,249th day as president.
Staff writer Jane Stancill and April Bethea of The Charlotte Observer contributed to this report.
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