Christensen

Christensen: Ross has earned new post

Staff WriterAugust 29, 2010 

Tom Ross is sort of a poor man's Erskine Bowles.

Ross isn't a multimillionaire investment banker. He doesn't pal around with Bill Clinton. And I doubt that he is a member of many expensive country clubs.

But otherwise, the University of North Carolina's Board of Governors dipped its ladle into the same old well last week to find a new president of the 17-campus system.

Greensboro baby boomer. Check. Career nonacademic. Check. Part of the state's establishment. Check. Democratic credentials. Check.

In turning to Ross, the UNC Board of Governors found someone who is part of a relatively small group of men and women who run North Carolina's politics, businesses, foundations, courts and law firms.

The establishment is a meritocracy. North Carolina is not Virginia with its first families or South Carolina with its Charleston aristocracy.

The UNC system is the state's crown jewel. It took an amazing leap of faith for a poor state in the 1920s - when North Carolina began pouring money into higher education - to create one of the nation's great university systems. (UNC-Chapel Hill began accepting students in 1795.)

So the state's leadership has been reluctant to turn over the keys to an outsider. The one experiment was Molly Broad (1997-2006), who had headed the California State University System. Although a distinguished educator, she turned out to be a poor fit in the state's political culture.

Ross, the son of a Burlington Industries executive, was thoroughly vetted: congressional chief of staff, veteran Superior Court judge; administrator of the state court system; head of a rich, powerful foundation; and finally, president of prestigious Davidson College.

No job was too complicated for Ross - from rewriting the prison sentencing system to studying the state's tax structure.

And he has done it all with a sense of modesty and a self-deprecating humor that has served him well.

But he is usually described as solid, rather than a star. Bowles had the glitz - the guy who ran the White House, a two-time Senate candidate who ran with the big dogs of Wall Street.

Ross will have a harder time selling himself to the legislature, where he is viewed by some as a liberal. It is ironic, given his Democratic credentials, that Bowles was popular with Republicans and more conservative Democrats in the legislature who liked his no-nonsense business style.

Since the university system was consolidated in the 1930s, there have been two types of presidents. There have been more conservative leaders taken from the corporate world - Gordon Gray, C.D. Spangler and Bowles. And there have been more liberal leaders taken from the academic world - Frank Porter Graham and Bill Friday. (Broad, the outsider, was sui generis.)

Labels are always tricky, and good leaders mold themselves to fit the times. But I would expect Ross to fall more in the latter category. Of course, Frank Graham and Bill Friday are pretty good company.

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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