It might have been one of the worst public appearances by an official in the history of North Carolina. And John Fennebresque, who was announcing the firing of the respected Tom Ross, president of the University of North Carolina system, said in a revealing profile published in The News & Observer on Sunday that he hasn’t slept well since that day in January.
A corporate lawyer in Charlotte, Fennebresque emerged as chairman of a UNC Board of Governors now dominated by Republicans. For months prior to the news conference with Ross at which Fennebresque embarrassed himself and other board members, rumors had circulated that new board members wanted Ross out because he was a Democrat who had been close to the late Richardson Preyer, a former congressman, and former Gov. Jim Hunt.
Ross had heard the rumors but believed he’d been open to his new board and had smoothed any feathers ruffled by partisanship. So when Fennebresque arrived in Chapel Hill to drop the hammer, Ross was surprised and defiant and declined to make it appear that the decision to “retire” in January 2016 was his. Though he reaches what has been the customary UNC president’s retirement age of 65 this year, Ross had made it clear to the board that hired him that he wouldn’t be ready to go, and that seemed fine with everyone.
Firing goes unexplained
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Then came the disastrous news conference. Fennebresque, who’d been without sleep due to his wife’s being ill, kept rambling about how great Ross was, how this wasn’t about partisanship, how he looked forward to working with Ross. But he never, and still has never, offered a credible explanation as to why Ross was being asked to retire. That’s not going to help build a pool of candidates to succeed him. Who’d want the job in a political whirlwind?
For all the denials about politics, it has long been clear that Ross was ousted because Republicans don’t like the idea of a Democrat having one of the state’s most prestigious and influential jobs. Fennebresque can deny that all he wants, but there is no other logical explanation, and it insults the public’s intelligence to try to obfuscate the reasons.
So Fennebresque says he’s still a restless sleeper. But the key question now is what kind of president this board, some of whom are harshly partisan, will choose.
Firing to hiring
With his handling of Ross’ ouster being dismal, Fennebresque will come under intense scrutiny once the choice is made. If the choice is an ideological conservative perceived as on a mission to carry out budget cutting and the ouster of administrators and faculty members deemed by the Board of Governors to be too liberal, the UNC system will risk losing a national reputation for excellence built by two of the state’s most beloved and respected citizens, Frank Porter Graham and William Friday.
Graham and Friday were both humble leaders who understood the university’s mission to serve all North Carolinians, including those for whom a university education represented a chance to improve their circumstances and to help their state.
Fennebresque, the son of privilege who once lived in a family mansion on Long Island and has had a reputation in his legal career as abrasive and impolitic, doesn’t have that background himself, though he also is praised by others as generous and public spirited.
It is his better self who must guide the selection of a new UNC president. Ross has been justifiably popular within the system and outside of it. His premature ouster has never been justified. For Fennebresque, the only way to soften the memories of what this board did to Tom Ross will be to choose a president who has stature and respect and the diplomatic skills to gain the confidence of the public and the university community.
Fennebresque failed his first big public test back in January. He must not fail the next one.