CHAPEL HILL — It's a tired joke, but Erskine Bowles can't help it.
Asked repeatedly in recent months whether he'll really slow down in retirement, Bowles has invariably responded: "My wife [Crandall] tells me I'll be fine on Monday. But she's really worried about Tuesday."
It's funny because it's true.
Bowles' tenure at UNC was a rigorous, fast-moving, work-to-the-bone five-year term during which public universities slashed hundreds of millions of dollars from their budgets, eliminated thousands of positions and laid off hundreds of workers.
But it wasn't all grim. Under Bowles' leadership, tuition became more predictable, financial aid increased, distance education expanded, and the relationship between universities, community colleges and the K-12 system grew closer. The university now serves the state's needs more directly, a theme that underscored Bowles' tenure.
He did it through hard work. Known for the 4a.m. e-mail message and a ragged, bleary-eyed staff, Bowles concedes he's more short-term change agent than long-term leader. But many close followers of the university system say he was precisely what it needed.
"He would not be very effective in one job for 30 years," said State Sen. Richard Stevens, the Wake County Republican who was co-chairman of the Senate education/higher education committee during Bowles' UNC tenure. "But he's very effective in one job for five years."
Change of command
Bowles' tenure ended Jan. 1. He turned the keys over to Tom Ross, the longtime Superior Court judge who most recently spent more than three years as president at Davidson College.
Ross takes over a university system trying to stanch the bleeding after four years of steep budget cuts, with even more looming.
Bowles didn't inherit a fixer-upper in 2006. The UNC system was well regarded within the state and across American higher education. A construction boom was under way, and the economy was relatively healthy.
Still, Bowles took office with efficiency on the brain. He made changes in purchasing and thinned middle management. A distance education program, the University of North Carolina Online, was created to make courses more accessible and far cheaper to administer than those taught in classrooms.
He slowed spending before the recession forced all state agencies to do so and continued on that path as the state budget grew tighter. Even the university's budget document itself got a lot smaller - from about 300 pages to 30.
"He promised administrative cuts, and then he did it, and thoroughly," Stevens said. "That certainly appealed to legislators strapped for dollars."
Bowles is a businessman. He worked first in investment banking and founded venture capital and private equity firms before becoming the White House Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton. He later ran two unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaigns.
Although his corporate approach was appealing in Raleigh, it took others longer to warm to Bowles, who learned quickly that universities do not operate like for-profit businesses.
"I come from a world of ready, fire, aim, and I came to a world of ready, aim, aim, aim, aim," Bowles, 65, said recently. "In almost any organization you need to meet the demands of the customers. Universities are almost the opposite. They spent their whole careers doing what they durn well want to. I tried to think about how to meet the demands of North Carolina and its citizens. You can't operate it like a business, but you can operate it in a more businesslike manner."
Big change in five years
The UNC system is a far different animal than it was five years ago, smaller in some areas, larger in others, and more directly focused on the needs of the state.
It hasn't come easy. Bowles was a demanding boss, heaping task after task onto a staff 35 percent smaller than it was five years ago.
"The work demands, under me, are always unreasonable," he says now. "That's why I say there's only so much people can take of Erskine Bowles. I don't think there's anybody here who'd say they haven't worked really, really hard over the last five years. I think that's really good. I don't apologize for that. But I also know I can push too hard."
Running a far-flung empire
The job demands a tireless leader. The UNC system is a far-flung empire of with more than 220,000 students on 17 campuses. It also includes a health care system, a public television station, an arboretum and UNC Press, a publishing house. Its total budget tops $7 billion.
Into this cauldron steps Ross, the genial, well-regarded former judge who also headed the state's court system, the Z. Smith Reynolds charitable foundation and Davidson College, the small, elite private school north of Charlotte.
In many ways, Ross and Bowles are similar. They're each from Greensboro and products of North Carolina's Democratic establishment, with deep political roots and connections across the state.
Ross also routinely works into the early hours. And like Bowles, he can talk earnestly about budgeting. But he is just as likely to talk to you about his golden retriever, Chelsea, or his beloved Cincinnati Reds. His cell phone ring tone is the Monday Night Football theme music.
Chosen as Bowles' successor in late August, Ross spent the balance of the year finishing up work at Davidson, his alma mater, while keeping a keen eye on UNC issues. He did so largely behind the scenes, wary of stepping on Bowles' toes or forcing staff to choose between two masters.
He didn't have several months to visit campuses and read over long-range plans, as Bowles did.
But he has some built-in advantages. He's known already by many in the General Assembly through his many years as a judge and administrator of the state court system. And he's familiar with many of the campuses and their chancellors. He's a former UNC Greensboro trustee. As a judge, he gave talks at N.C. Central University's law school. At Davidson, he was part of a leadership council with the heads of UNCG, Western Carolina and Appalachian State, all members of the Southern Conference.
He's already talked extensively with campus chancellors, cognizant that each institution is unique.
"There are no cookie-cutters in this business," Ross said in a recent interview. "The nuances of these campuses are important to know."
Job 1: More budget cuts
One thing is clear: He'll have his hands full immediately.
Even after budget cuts of $620 million over the last four years, the UNC system is expected to take another hit this year as the state grapples with a $3.7 billion budget deficit. And there's new political leadership in Raleigh, which means Ross and his staff will have to forge ties with new legislative leaders and committee heads.
"He's stepping into an even worse [budget] situation," said Stevens, the Wake County state senator. "And now there are new people, of a different political party, who have not had years of working with your budget. So you have to build new relationships."
Ross, 60, swears he isn't daunted.
"My sense is the General Assembly of North Carolina will continue to be very supportive of the university and it doesn't matter who's in control of it," he said. "They realize how important an asset it is to the state."
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