Tom Ross’ arm had to be twisted to leave Davidson, the small, private liberal arts college where he was an undergraduate and, decades later, president.
But five years ago, the call to public service prevailed when Ross, a former judge, became president of the UNC system – leading, as he says, the most important institution in the state. He departs the job Sunday, earlier than he would have liked, pushed out by the UNC Board of Governors following a seismic shift in the state’s political leadership.
Ross, a Democrat and former head of the liberal leaning Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, led the state’s public university system at a time of financial stress, administrative turnover, athletic scandal and higher education upheaval. But perhaps his biggest challenge was a new board, dominated by Republicans, that wanted a more active role in overseeing the university.
Now, Ross is looking for his next opportunity, which he says may or may not be in education. In a recent interview at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government, where he is slated to teach, Ross was politic about his forced departure and candid about the challenges he sees for U.S. higher education.
Lately, he has been outspoken about what he says is a dangerous trend, a growing tendency by people and policymakers to view a public university education as a private good – something to be measured by job outcomes or the bottom line. Last month, in a speech to college lobbyists in Washington, Ross bluntly said America had “lost her way” on higher education.
“We’ve allowed the conversation to become focused almost entirely on the economic value to the individual,” he explained in the interview. “There’s more to higher education than the value to the individual.”
There’s the larger economic impact, he said, at a time when global competition is about who has the talent. There are also the positive byproducts of an educated society – lower costs for incarceration, welfare and health – and the intrinsic value of education to people’s lives.
“We’ve got to get folks to get back to the point where they fully understand that investing in education ... is really that,” he said. “It’s an investment, not an expense.”
Getting more people more education was the major goal of Ross’ five-year strategy developed with heavy input from the UNC board. The plan was to raise the percentage of North Carolina adults with a four-year degree from 29 percent in 2012 to 32 percent by 2018 – an increase that seems modest, but isn’t. So far, the system is on track to achieve the target. Ross’ blueprint also focused on online education, financial efficiency and a few research areas deemed important for the state’s economy.
Becoming more efficient was a goal but also a necessity, driven by the recession and state budget duress early in Ross’ tenure. In 2011, the system sustained its largest cut ever – $400 million, about 15 percent of its budget. He would later be chastised by former state budget director Art Pope for asking for too much in an initial budget request. By the end of Ross’ tenure, the university was producing more graduates but spending 15 percent less per degree in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Steve Leonard, a political science professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and chair of the systemwide Faculty Assembly, said faculty quibbled with Ross on occasion, mostly about tactics as opposed to substance. The president wouldn’t go to bat for faculty on every issue. He wisely picked his battles, Leonard said, but managed to maintain a commitment to quality even with the economic trouble.
“I think that’s a remarkable achievement,” Leonard said, “that he was able to hold the place together through all of these difficulties.”
Pushing for North Carolina to produce more degree earners was counter to those who preferred reduction in the size of the university.
“He has held firm, and he has held together, that vision that he’s had about what public higher education should be, and I think it’s one that many faculty share,” Leonard said. “That’s why a lot of us have great respect for him.”
‘More with less’
The crafting of the strategic plan was a struggle at times. Former board member Fred Eshelman, a hard-nosed entrepreneur who headed the effort with Ross, practically moved into the UNC headquarters for months. Ross once joked that the two almost came to blows.
Eshelman has been a big donor to Republican candidates but also criticized the legislature for cutting UNC and not funding new priorities. The longer he worked with Ross, he said, the more the two aligned in their thinking. The plan they crafted was specific and measurable – and therefore better than previous ones, Eshelman said.
“He navigated a number of minefields with poise and grace. It’s too bad his tenure was somewhat associated with constantly diminishing budgets and therefore trying to do more with less,” Eshelman said. “I think he kept the system moving forward despite that.”
Eshelman resigned the board early and wasn’t around when members took action to end Ross’ presidency, which he described as a “pretty ragged” process.
“He could have gotten mean-spirited over it if he had wanted to,” Eshelman said. “He chose not to go that route, and I think that’s admirable.”
Ross admits the last few months have been emotional. The board has chosen his successor – Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. education secretary under President George W. Bush. Ross dined with Spellings and pledged a smooth transition. “I want her to be successful,” he said, “and she needs to be.”
Other than the fact that they want a different leader, I’m not sure I’ve ever been given a good reason for why we needed to make the change.
Critics of the board suggested the Ross firing was purely political, but former chairman John Fennebresque denied that. During the subsequent search, Fennebresque and others expressed a desire for a change agent as the next president. The chairman resigned shortly after the Spellings announcement, after losing support from fellow board members.
When asked whether he was mistreated by the board, Ross pauses, but answers no.
“The struggle I’ve had is that it was without any warning,” he said. “To the contrary, it was presented after months of people on the board voicing their support for me and their satisfaction with my work. And so it was a surprise, and it was sudden. I don’t dispute and I haven’t ever disputed the board’s right to have the leader they want. Other than the fact that they want a different leader, I’m not sure I’ve ever been given a good reason for why we needed to make the change.”
So Ross will step down Sunday at the age of 65, the customary age when UNC presidents have retired.
He ran the university with a judge’s temperament and a steady hand – a style that was both praised and criticized at times when some thought quick action was in order. At UNC-Chapel Hill, as the athletic and academic scandal dragged on, system leaders initially took a hands-off approach. A system task force studied practices, and a board committee looked into the scandal but unearthed nothing new.
Eventually, once the State Bureau of Investigation stepped in, the two major players who were implicated agreed to talk. That’s when Ross and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt brought in former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, whose 2014 report revealed that the so-called “paper classes” had stretched for 18 years and involved 3,100 students.
Ross said the SBI involvement and methodical approach were necessary to get the facts. “It took a long time to get them,” he said. “Much longer than I would have liked.”
Turmoil at ECSU
In the case of another crisis, at Elizabeth City State University, Ross took a measured approach when some in the legislature and on the board questioned whether the campus should continue to exist. Police wrongdoing, plunging enrollment and budget cuts dealt serious blows to the school. Ross brought in a respected judge, Charles Becton, as interim chancellor and seemed to win support in Raleigh when the legislature last year pledged extra funding to stabilize the campus.
Last month, however, the campus was again in turmoil with the unexplained resignation of its chancellor, Stacey Franklin Jones, after only about a year on the job. Ross has not commented on Jones but did name another interim chancellor who is expected to assume the job permanently in January.
His most difficult moments have revolved around personnel issues, Ross said, though he did not elaborate. He also has had to face, with chancellors, the deaths of students. In choosing 11 chancellors during his five years, he asked them if they had the fortitude to call the family of a student who had died, “because if you can’t do that, you can’t do the job.”
He points to accomplishments that haven’t made big headlines – a new agreement on course transfers from community colleges, a big push to enroll veterans and new efforts to help students with some college credit finish their degrees.
These are significant changes for UNC, but perhaps not enough change for some.
The conservative John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a frequent critic of the university system, wants the next president to be a reformer. “Above all else, whoever takes office next January should recognize that UNC is a system in need of serious reform, not just minor tweaking and tinkering,” a Pope Center commentary said, adding that a new president could put an end to left-wing bias at the university and an “expansive vision” that the university can be all things to all people. The center called for transparency and a president with “a cost-cutting mindset” who will fight waste in UNC’s $9 billion budget.
Save us from ourselves
Hannah Gage, an emeritus board member and chair of the UNC board when Ross was hired, said he was the right man for a difficult era.
“We had the budget, we had the academic scandal, we had a number of underperforming campuses and for the first time we began to have an enrollment decline,” she said. “So it has not been a cake walk. When you add to that the turbulent landscape in both politics and higher ed, it’s been a huge challenge.”
Still, significant strides were made, Gage said: improving graduation rates, better relationships with community colleges, a stronger budget and, finally, technology has a more prominent role in UNC’s strategy.
While Ross’ cautious approach may have frustrated the board members, Gage said, it probably prevented mistakes at a time when they wanted to rush to change everything. “It has saved us often from ourselves,” she said.
Folt said Ross helped her understand North Carolina’s commitment to higher education. But she most enjoyed watching him interact with students in meaningful ways, “championing the leaders of tomorrow every step of the way,” she said in a statement.
Despite an emotional exit, Ross only chokes up when he talks about students – one in particular, a young man who dropped out of high school to support ill parents, earned a GED, attended community college and transferred to the Chapel Hill campus, where he graduated and later earned a law degree.
“There are stories like that that just help you know why you’re in this and why it’s so important,” he said. “That’s the part that gives me the most joy.”