John Fennebresque, chairman of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, seems uncomfortable in the job and has had troubles, most of them self-inflicted. Fennebresque was the one who presided over the embarrassing ouster of UNC system President Tom Ross, who has done a capable job and has a resume full of good public service.
Fennebresque, in a clumsy news conference announcing the firing of Ross in January, wouldn’t or couldn’t come up with a credible reason why he and other board members wanted Ross out. He kept praising the president.
Speculation, and it’s not idle speculation, was that Fennebresque and his mates on the BOG were taking their marching orders from Republican leaders of the General Assembly, who don’t like Ross’ connections with prominent Democrats, including former Gov. Jim Hunt. BOG members can deny that all they want, but the ouster of Ross has the mark of a takeover of the university system by GOP partisans, who already killed off a poverty center at UNC-Chapel Hill because they despise its leader, law Professor Gene Nichol, an unabashed, and Republican-bashing, liberal. The BOG is overwhelmingly Republican.
Fennebresque’s inability to articulate the reasons for Ross’ ouster, even now, makes the launch of a search for Ross’ successor all the more awkward. Ross will not actually leave the post until early next year.
One board member, in discussions of what was needed in a new president, mentioned the term “change agent.” But then Fennebresque said, “We want a change agent, but we don’t know the specifics of what we want to change.”
Good grief. What? So the chairman is at least consistent: He didn’t know why Ross was being fired – or didn’t want to admit he was snapping to attention for GOP legislative leaders – and now he’s not exactly sure what changes he wants the new president to make.
No wonder consultant Jerry Baker, speaking to the board about the presidential search, was freshly candid when he said the political upheaval in North Carolina is making people outside the state confused and nervous. “Folks from Boston to Berkeley kept saying, ‘Jerry, what’s going on in North Carolina?’ It doesn’t feel right to people afar when they look at what we’re doing here.” He added, “We’re slipping a little bit, at least in the eyes of those around the country.”
Republican leaders couldn’t seem to care less about that, of course. They’ve proved they’re no fans of the UNC system anyway with anemic budgets. But the political tumult that now has cost a good president his job may well make it difficult to get a top-tier candidate. One consultant suggested that retired military generals have become university presidents and that a “nontraditional” candidate, meaning a non-academic, might be a good choice.
But Fennebresque, who’s stirred a lot of turmoil in a short time, would be wise at this point not to go too far in the nontraditional direction. He claims to love the university, and he means that, no doubt. But now, as essentially the head of the presidential search, he’s going to be held to account as never before.
For now, though, he’d do well to quit trying to explain why he carried out the firing of Tom Ross, because he doesn’t seem to understand it very well himself. And he also would be wise to avoid catch phrases like change agent. The system will need a leader, a strong one, and one who is not a darling of either political party or an ideologue. The president of the UNC system has a first loyalty to the students, the faculty and the people of North Carolina. He or she must be free to speak out on issues of importance.
William Friday did that as president and became the most important figure in American higher education. So did one of his predecessors, Frank Porter Graham. If GOP legislators, through the Board of Governors they appointed, try to see that the new president passes a political and ideological litmus test, they can forget any chance of the university getting the leader it needs.