In 1999, N.C. Chief Justice Burley Mitchell needed a director for the state's court system, an unwieldy job balancing the needs of judges and other court officers in the state's 100 counties. He turned to Tom Ross.
A longtime Superior Court judge, Ross had just spent a decade leading a commission that pushed through sweeping changes to the state's criminal sentencing laws. Mitchell knew Ross would bring a steady hand and an open mind to the job.
Mitchell expects more of the same come January when Ross, now president at Davidson College, takes over as president of the UNC system.
"Anybody who can handle the Administrative Office of the Courts, the hundreds of judges in this state - all of whom are elected - will find running the University of North Carolina not so terribly challenging," Mitchell said. "In that position you lead by example, moral suasion and by bringing people together. Judge Ross was just superb at it."
In a long career marked by public service, Ross has built a reputation as a methodical problem-solver who considers all views. When he starts the UNC job Jan. 1, he'll face pleas for resources from the state's 17 campuses and demands from legislators that spending be limited.
A Davidson alum, Ross admits to some sleepless nights following his decision to take the UNC job.
"I've woken up several times thinking I hope I haven't made a mistake," he said in a recent interview. "I've given up something very special."
Ross couldn't be more intertwined with Davidson. His father went there, as did his two children. A 1972 graduate, Ross was a trustee before becoming its president three years ago. He tears up explaining the decision to leave.
"This place has really been a powerful force in my life," Ross explained, sitting in his Davidson office dotted with baseball memorabilia.
Davidson offers the quintessential college experience. It is small, with a total enrollment that's less than half of this year's freshman class at UNC-CH. On a picturesque campus of red brick buildings, students lounge under massive oak trees and swing by Ross' home on campus to play with his golden retriever, Chelsea.
At Davidson, Ross got the public service bug that eventually would lead him to leave the campus. He took on service projects as a student there, studied political science and became fascinated with government. He and his wife, Susan, were married June 17, 1972 - the day of the infamous Watergate break-in. Ross spent his law school years at UNC-Chapel Hill, intently following the scandal's subsequent twists and turns.
He went on to teach at the School of Government at UNC-CH. He then practiced law and spent a year as chief of staff for a member of Congress. In 1984, Gov. Jim Hunt appointed Ross to the state's Superior Court, and in 1990, Ross began leading the sentencing commission that would make him a star in some legal circles.
He went on to the court system job and then directed the Z. Smith Reynolds charitable organization before taking over at Davidson in 2007.
All along the way, he's tried to solve problems.
Earlier this year, Bill Shelton wanted to learn a bit more about Summit House, a residential alternative to prison for women with children. He was still new as the nonprofit agency's executive director, and everyone told him he needed to speak with "Judge" Ross.
"All that time he talked about Summit House, he never talked about himself," Shelton recalled. "I had to drag out of him the fact that he was a founder. He was always deflecting the credit."
Ross helped create Summit House, which has locations in Charlotte and the Piedmont with a third coming online soon in Durham. His interest was spurred by the procession of young women with children he saw in his courtroom. He saw Summit House as a way for women who aren't violent offenders to maintain their grip on family while in prison.
"As a judge, you see all sorts of life in front of you, all different kinds of problems and issues," Ross said. "I've always been the kind of guy to look for solutions. I didn't always think sending a guy off to prison was a solution."
While Ross was head of the sentencing commission in the 1990s, some felt he was actually too tough on crime. Ross honed his lobbying chops by persuading legislators to change a system in which criminals were serving tiny fractions of sentences. The change mandated that violent offenders serve out their terms; the resulting predictability let the state manage its money more efficiently.
"It had a significant and almost immediate impact on the state's ability to manage its prison population," said Jim Drennan, a courts administration expert with the UNC-CH School of Government. "It was immediately nationally recognized because it let the state predict the resources it would need."
Ross, 60, is a congenial man of measured words. He won't bring the sort of high-profile, policy rock star persona to the UNC job that the current officeholder, Erskine Bowles, did by virtue of his time running the White House. Still, Ross has carved out a solid reputation in three years at Davidson, said Terry Hartle, vice president with the American Council on Education, a Washington organization representing more than 2,000 colleges and universities.
Ross' academic star has risen in recent years, in large part because of the Davidson Trust, the college's ambitious program that eliminates loans from financial aid, Hartle said. The program was a significant investment that diversified the student population.
Ross has mingled easily with Davidson students. He often invites them over for dinner. He learns names. He has been a fixture at basketball games, cheering the Wildcats from the front row, and pulling off his jacket in exasperation when he felt the refs had blown a call.
His office door, just down the hall from classrooms, is always open.
"Tom Ross wasn't one of those behind-the-scenes, fundraising type presidents," said former Davidson trustee K.D. Weeks, a Charlotte cardiologist. "He's a student and alumni president."
That was clear in March 2008, when the Wildcats basketball team made an unlikely run through the NCAA tournament. After Davidson, led by All-America Stephen Curry, made the Sweet 16, trustee Janet Wilson of Lenoir suggested the college find a way to get students to the games in Detroit.
The idea caught fire, and hundreds of frantic phone calls, hotel reservations and ticket requests later, trustees eventually paid for more than 500 students to attend the games.
"It was one of those remarkable things that had a feel-good result for everyone," Weeks said. "Janet planted the seed. It took Tom Ross to pull the trigger."
Though he made it clear that students had to make up missed work, Ross loved sending the students to Detroit. As an undergrad in 1969, Ross was in the stands in College Park, Md., when Davidson lost a tournament heartbreaker to UNC.
It's a bittersweet memory he still cherishes. He wanted his students to carve out their own memories.
When Ross got to the game two years ago, students began chanting "Tom-my Ross, Tom-my Ross," said Christie Mason, a recent Davidson graduate who is now a college fellow coordinating community service programs.
"He walked through the student section, slapping hands, while everyone chanted his name," Mason said. "Instead of hamming it up, he looked down at his shoes, and the tips of his ears turned red. His ears turn red when he gets embarrassed."
At UNC, Ross will work under the glare of unrelenting public scrutiny. He already has critics.
Ross spent about seven years running the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a nonprofit that awarded some grants to abortion-rights groups. That experience has rankled some conservatives who are concerned that Ross will bring a liberal bent to the UNC job. Bowles, though a staunch Democrat, has been viewed as a largely apolitical university president lauded by conservatives for reducing spending.
"[Ross] is an insider and a member of the North Carolina Democratic Party," said Jane Shaw, president of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a conservative Raleigh-based think tank that examines university issues. "His role at Z. Smith Reynolds indicates [that] his interests tilt to the left, and I do not think that's what the university needs."
But Ross says the Reynolds foundation gave money to groups across the political spectrum during his time there. He points to his track record as a builder of consensus.
"I come to the University of North Carolina with one agenda," he said. "And that is educational excellence in the state of North Carolina."
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